The father of modern drama
Dr. Azher Suleiman
The father of modern drama
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copyright© 2010 by Azher Suleiman
The theatre of the Scandinavia at the early nineteenth century was
particularly deplorable and sterile. The dramatic writings were either following
the French dramatist Eugene Scribe's (1791-1861) well-made play or the
sensational, witty, cynical, dashing and sardonic comedies. Both types of drama
were thematically unrelated to everyday life. The plays presented on stage at that
time reflected the taste of an aristocratic audience. The main topics of such
drama were sex, fashioned intrigues, marriage and adultery. They disregarded
the personal conflicts of the characters and the interrelationships among them.
The idea of exploiting the theatre as a soap-box for the dramatist's social,
economical and philosophical thinking was not assimilated yet. In general,
drama did not conceive of the stage as a medium for anything but pure
entertainment and romance. The people themselves were going to theatres not to
see reproductions of life but what they were looking for was a type of melodrama
or farce in which acting was highly artificial and unlifelike and actors used to
declaim their lines. However, Norway was eager to establish an independent
dramatic literature and life. To achieve this purpose, a theatre was established in
Bergen in 1849. The two Norwegian dramatists Bj0rnstjerne Bj0rnson and
Henrik Ibsen found that theatre an ideal means to establish new drama.
In Scandinavia*, Realism appeared as a social and political need. The
Scandinavian realists wanted to debate social issues not only for aesthetic
reasons, but in order to bring about social change. The women's question is a
good example. Women had no right to vote, could not hold political office, and
were not entitled to control their own property. They had no access to higher
education and were expected to spend their lives as wives and mothers. If they
did not marry, they could usually look forward to a difficult old age in the home
of a brother or sister. Most of the reforms that improved the lives and economic
situation of women were first advocated by writers of novels, short stories, and
The successor to national romanticism was realism, which also came from
outside Scandinavia, particularly France, where two of its greatest practitioners
were the writers Gustave Flaubert (1821-1880), best known for his novel
Madame Bovary (1857), and Honore' de Balzac (1799-1850). The term realism in
literary studies denotes a style that tries to describe life as it is, without
idealization or subjectivity. (Fisher: 2008, 395) In the present context, however, it
also refers to Scandinavian prose and drama written from around 1840 through
the 1880s, but particularly in the 1870s. Only a few works from the 1840s can
confidently be termed realistic. The best early example of realists in
Scandinavian literature is arguably the Swedish novelist Carl Jonas (1793-1866),
which anticipates one of the favorite subjects of the realists, namely, the position
of women in the family and in society. But the pseudonymous writings of the
' In the Scandinavian countries the term is applied exclusively to Denmark, Norway, and Sweden.
Danish philosopher-writer S0ren Kierkegaard (1813-1855) may also be
considered an example of realist concerns, inasmuch as they are written in
conscious opposition to the ideas of the German romantics. Kierkegaard's story
of deceit and manipulation "Forf0rerens Dagbog" (1843) The Seducer's Diary,
certainly shares many of the features of realist literature from the later decades.
Realism coexisted with late romantic idealism in Scandinavian literature
throughout the 1840s, 1850s, and 1860s, but an event in 1871 marks its complete
triumph on the Scandinavian literature. This event, after which any other
literary style was clearly passe, was the first in a serious of lectures given by the
Danish critic Georg Brandes (1842-1927), in which he called for a literary
practice that would use literature to debate modern problems and issues. It is no
exaggeration to say that just about every progressive writer in Scandinavia fell
into line. In Denmark, Jens Peter Jacobsen produced two realist novels that
adhered to the new program: Marie Grubbe (1876) and Niels Lyhne (1880).
Swedish writer August Strindberg (1849-1912) wrote a great novel The Red
Room (1879, which offers a panoramic view of life among artists, intellectuals,
and government employees in Stockholm. In Norway, we can regard Henrik
Ibsen not only the father of modern drama but also as the father of realism. He
was a leader in the campaign for a modern radical and realistic literature in the
cultural life of Scandinavia of this age, and challenged the values of middle-class
society and formulated the basic rights and liberties of the individual.
Henrik Johan Ibsen (1828-1906) was an important Norwegian dramatist,
social critic and agitator for women's rights. He is known to be the father of
realism and has been a pioneer in the transformation and revolution of modern
drama. Ibsen was a leader in the campaign for a modern radical and realistic
literature in the cultural life of Scandinavia of this age, and challenged the values
of middle-class society and formulated the basic rights and liberties of the
individual. Charles Lyons describes him as "the realist, the iconoclast, the
successful or failed idealist, the poet, the psychologist, the romantic, the
antiromantic." (Lyons: 1987, 4) He was one of the four great ones with
Alexander Kiell (1849-1906), Jonas Lie (1833-1908) and Bj0rnstjerne Bj0rnson
of the nineteenth century Norwegian literature.
In 1850, Ibsen traveled to Christiania (now Oslo) to take his A-level,
presumably with the idea of beginning studies in medicine at the university.
Unfortunately, his grades were too low to gain admission. He was occasionally
earned from his journalistic writings. About 1851 the violinist Ole Bull (1810-
1880) gave Ibsen the position of "theatre poet" at the newly built National
Theatre in Bergen - a post which he held for six years. In the same year, he
wrote two plays, namely, Catiline, a tragedy, which reflected the atmosphere of
the revolutionary year of 1848, and the Burial Mound. Although he never became
a good director and his plays were mostly unsuccessful, the year in Bergen gave
him invaluable experience in practical stagecraft.
As a dramatic author and director, first in Bergen then in Christiania,
Ibsen staged hundred of plays, wrote several of his own, and the process became
a thoroughgoing theatrical professional. He was awarded a substantial grant by
the Norwegian government to travel and study in Italy. He also had financial
help from Bj0rnstjerne Bj0rnson. He left Norway in 1864, spending the next 27
years in Italy and Germany, returning to Norway only for brief visits. He
returned to Norway in 1891 and he settled down in Christiania and lived there
until his death in (1906). He wrote in all 26 dramatic works (see Appendix 1) and
some 300 poems.
Ibsen's work is generally divided by critics into three phases. The first
phase consists of his early dramas written in verse and modeled after romantic
historical tragedy and Norse sagas: Catiline, (1850). The main character in this
historical drama is the noble Roman Lucius Catilina, based on the historical
figure of Catiline. Like the characters in many of Ibsen's later plays, Catiline is
torn between two women, his wife Aurelia and the Vestal virgin Furia: one of
them embodies domestic virtues, the other his calling and, significantly, his
death. Harold Clurman says that "the audience would hardly have been capable
of seeing any connection between the Rome of the play and the conditions in
Norway." (Clurman: 1977, 29) As characteristic of Ibsen's early work the play is
metrical (iambic pentameter) in blank verse. The Burial Mound (1850) (also
known as The Warrior's Barrow) is a one-act dramatic poem that portrays an
incident from the heroic age of Norse conquest. Landing on an island off the
coast of Sicily, Gandalf, a young pagan chieftain who personifies the rough
Viking tradition, confronts the tempering Mediterranean influence of
Christianity in young, innocent Blanka. Sworn to avenge his father's death,
Gandalf learns that Blanka has in fact saved his life, and he subsequently returns
to Norway with her. Norma or A Politician's Love (1851) is a drama written as an
opera parody. It is an odd job of only marginal interest among Ibsen's works.
The characters are all caricatures of well-known parliamentarians, projected in
the manner of light-fingered journalism and political cabaret. But there are
three aspects of the play that deserve attention: it shows a coming dramatist's
first attempt in the genre of political satire; there are elements in the play that
point to The League of Youth, which Ibsen wrote almost two decades later and
finally it is the first example of Ibsen's comic verse. St. John's Eve (1852) is
considered apocryphal; because it never entered Ibsen's collected works. It is in
prose. The play takes into account variants of romantic nationalism in Norway.
Julian Paulsen, a student poetaster, is pretentiously affected in his self-regard as
a deep thinker and aesthete. He admits that his natural self does not conform
with his aestheticism. He is a committed and passionate nationalist in the mode
of the day. He advocates the use of the old Norse language to stress Norway's
difference from Denmark. A sensible girl, Juliana, suggests that if he were to
employ the archaic tongue, no one would understand him. Lady Inger of
Oestraat (1854) is unsuccessful historical play. It is entirely in prose. Its story is
about two strong women Lady Inger and her daughter Eline. The main events of
the play deal with Norway's struggle for independence from Danish rule in the
late Middle Ages. The Feast ofSolhaug (1856) is the first publicly successful play.
This comedy is composed in folk-ballad style. It takes place at the beginning of
the fourteenth century. Margit, the young wife of Bergt Gauteson, married him
because he was the wealthy master of the great estate of Solhony. She had been
in love with Gudmund Alfson, in exile on being falsely accused of siding with the
enemy while Norway was at war with Denmark. When the play begins,
Gudmund has stolen back to the homeland and takes refuge with Margit and her
younger sister Signe. Margit nearly succeeds in poisoning her husband to get her
lover. But Gudmunt has fallen in love with the younger sister. Throughout many
complications and misunderstanding, everything is happily settled down and
resolved: Berget escapes death and Gudmund gets Signe and no blood is shed.
Olaf Liljekrans (1857) resembles a fairy tale. Olaf roaming about in an
uninhabited mountain valley becomes enchanted with its sole female survivor,
Alfhild., an old minstrel's daughter. But he has plighted his troth to Ingeborg,
the daughter of a rich landowner, Arne of Guldvik (again a contrast between two
types of women). Though Olaf has declared his love for Alfhild, which she
reciprocates, he is duty-bound to marry Ingeborg, and is rather frightened by
the spell alfhild has cast upon him. All ends well. Ingeborg marries her lover
Hemming. Alfhild protests to her father that she wants to follow Olaf back to
where he lives down in the village. The Vikings at Helgeland (1858) is set in the
tenth century, based on old Icelandic Family Sagas. It is a blood-and-thunder
melodrama*, full of killing, oaths of vengeance, duals and fierce heroics to
sustain codes of honors. Love's Comedy (1862) presents two couples, one couple
become enslaved to convention after their private life is intruded as a result of
marriage. The other couple, who fear ending up like the first couple, decide to
part and live in the memory of their love. The play explores the vulgar
convention of marriage at odds with true passionate love. The Pretenders (1863)
is a historical-chronicle play. It evolves around the historical conflict between
Norwegian King Hakon Hakonsson and his father-in-law; Earl Skule Bardsson .
Brand (1866) is a symbolic tragedy provides an unsparing vision of a priest
driven by faith to risk the lives of his wife and child. He invites people to follow
him to the mountains to worship God. After a brief practical experience of this
arrangement, the people change their minds, and stone him. "The very
mountains themselves stone him, indeed; for he is killed by an avalanche."
(Shaw: 1986, 66) Peer Gynt (1867) is a mock heroic fantasy. It is about a poor
Norwegian man raised on fairy tales leads a life of self indulgence and fidelity to
his Gyntian Self. His exploits involve ruining young maidens, escaping from
trolls, dealing in slaves, and becoming a prophet and wandering the desert.
* A type of drama that highlights suspense and romantic sentiment, with characters who are usually
either clearly good or bad. As its name implies, the form frequently uses a musical background to
underscore or heighten the emotional tone of a scene. Melodrama first achieved great popularity on
the 19th-century stage. Its appeal continues today in many films and television plays.
When finally returns home, Gynt discovers that his 'true self dissolved due to
his self-seeking and ruinous lifestyle. It is a study in individualism. Brand has
consisted of giving oneself to those most in need; Peer's individualism is only
selfishness. He always forfeits himself to avoid confrontation with any difficulty;
he is the emperor of compromise, a spiritual cipher. He is the manifestation of
that cowardly egotism that lives only for itself. The play is, however, difficult for
many of the symbols and references from Norwegian folk mythology are
unfamiliar to the English-speaking readers. After Peer Gynt Ibsen never wrote
another play in verse. The League of Youth (1869) is a comedy of political satire
and criticism which revolves about an aspiring, self aggrandizing leader of
liberal causes wins public favor after attacking a town leader who once snubbed
him. Drunk with success, the leader becomes enamored of polite society and ends
up praising the man he once attacked in order to secure his place in polite society
and enjoy the comfortable life it offers - precisely the lifestyle he once attacked.
Emperor and Galilean (1873) is Ibsen's longest play, and he considered it his
magnum opus. This historical play is about the Roman Emperor Julian the
Apostate and is written in two parts with five acts in each part. He converts
many to the cause of Christ but he himself is a half-hearted Christian. Later, he
tries to restore the old Roman gods, but he feels the same disillusionment he had
first with Christianity. He eventually becomes Emperor, which only hardens him
toward Christianity and the Roman gods. He seeks out a mystic who teaches him
that a new way is coming that will free man - the realization that God is in man
himself. Generally speaking, the plays of the first phase are noted primarily for
their idiosyncratic Norwegian characters and for their emerging elements of
satire and general social criticism.
The second phase covers the years in which he wrote most of the plays of
protest against social conditions which begins with the appearance of The Pillars
of the Community (1877). The play is about a man, prominent in his small town,
and full of righteous indignation over the dishonorable acts of the outside world,
commits these very same acts to maintain his own respectability. His adulterous
affair ruins many lives and scandalizes the town. He discovers that the true
pillars of society are Truth (facing all the facts) and Freedom (from the
hypocrisy of respectability). A Doll's House (1879) is about a couple with three
children who live a seemingly pleasant middle class life until individual,
economic and social circumstances force a change in the wife's attitude which
leads her to leave her family seeking her own freedom. The play is often
considered a masterpiece of Realist Theater. The account of the collapse of a
middle-class marriage, this work, in addition to sparking debate about women's
rights and divorce, is also regarded as innovative and daring because of its
emphasis on psychological tension rather than external action. This technique
required that emotion be conveyed through small, controlled gestures, shifts in
inflection, and pauses, and therefore instituted a new style of acting. The Ghosts
(1881) revolves about a wife of a philandering drunkard who is forced to
sacrifice her life because of societal convention. Hoping to save her son from an
affair with a girl (his half sister from an affair between his father and a servant
girl) she decides to send him away to grow up. The son returns, the very picture
of his dissolute father. When the son starts to suffer from syphilis (inherited from
his father), the wife faces the choice of administering poison upon his request. A
Public Enemy (1882) deals with Dr. Stockmann's attempts to expose a water
pollution scandal in his home town, which is about to establish itself as a spa.
When his brother, the mayor, conspires with local politicians and the newspaper
to suppress the story, Stockmann appeals to the public meeting - only to be
shouted down and reviled as 'an enemy of the people'.
The third phase is marked by Ibsen's symbolic plays. It starts with The
Wild Duck (1884) which is regarded as one of Ibsen's greatest tragicomical works
that explores the role of illusion and self-deception in everyday life. It relates a
story of a family that is torn apart by the good intentions of an idealistic young
man who believes that life's problems are solved by laying bare the truth and
practicing the virtue of self sacrifice. This destroys a marriage and causes the
good natured young daughter to kill herself rather than the family's beloved
duck as atonement to her father. The play explores the dangers of forming ideals
for others. Rosmersholm (1886) discusses the dilemma of a respectable priest who
hopes to ennoble his parishioners' souls. His wife commits suicide to save her
husband's reputation. He eventually falls in love with a young woman who
encourages the priest to espouse her radical ideas in public. When he does, the
public turns against the priest. The girl, her soul now ennobled, then plans to kill
herself, both as atonement for the trouble she caused and as a display of her love
for the priest. The priest, tormented over his wife's death and his inability to
fulfill his original aims, joins the young woman in a suicidal leap into a mill
stream to a union in death. The Lady from the Sea (1888) is about a widowed
doctor who marries a wild girl raised near the raging sea. The girl remains wild
and frivolous until the death of her first child. She begins longing for the sea and
for a certain sailor she was once engaged to. One day the sailor shows up and
inflames her heart. The doctor initially insists on obeying convention and
fulfilling the duties of their marriage, but he soon comes to realize she must
follow her heart after he realizes that desire is the true foundation of marriage.
After being released by her husband and leaving with the sailor, the girl's
frivolity completely disappears as she discovers her own strength and
individuality. The play indicates that without responsibility there can be no valid
meaning in freedom. Hedda Gabler (1890) is about a woman whose passion and
power can only manifest themselves destructively. A moral coward under the
pressure of social inhibition, Hedda becomes a corrupting and malefic force.
When a selfish, cynical woman with a fascination for pistols tires of her marriage
to a scholar, she wreaks havoc in the lives of others by attracting the attention of
a friend, judge Brack, who indicates that he knows about the pistol, and expects
Hedda's favors in return for his silence. When the judge tries to blackmail her
into a relationship, she commits suicide instead. The play reveals Ibsen at the
peak of his dramatic craftsmanship. The Master Builder (1892) is the first play
Ibsen writes following his return to Norway in 1891 after his twenty-seven-year
absence abroad. The Master Builder chronicles the career and personal
relationships of Halvard Solness, a man who has not let anything stand in the
way of his rampant ambition. As he struggles with the destructive consequences
of his monomaniacal pursuit and his growing fear that he has lost his creative
powers, a mysterious young woman appears. She will help Solness gain a glimpse
of his former robust self as she leads him to his tragic fate. In The Master Builder,
Ibsen paints a fascinating portrait of one man's consuming desire for success.
Little Eyolf (1894) concerns parental responsibility. A scholar and his wife have a
crippled child who is cared for the scholar's half sister, whom the scholar is very
close to. The wife becomes jealous of her husband's affection for the boy and
wishes the boy was carried off by the Rat- Wife, who leads people out in the sea to
drown. The boy then drowns and the scholar reminds his wife of her words.
Through old letters, the scholar learns that the woman he is close to and loves is
not his half sister. They initially rejoice, but the 'half sister' fears the scholar's
wife will be left alone, so the half sister goes off with another suitor, leaving the
couple to rebuild their relationship while they devote themselves to the care of
neglected children. John Gabriel Borkman (1896) revolves about a ruined bank
manager, who lusts for power, and his self centered wife, who longs for social
respectability. They place hope in their son to return them to power and
respectability. A noble hearted woman, whom the bank manger used to love but
whom he traded to an associate for power, raises the boy out of genuine love and
concern. Once grown, the son shrugs off his parents' hopes for him and ignores
the noble woman during her dying days. He instead leaves with a wealthy
divorcee and a young girl to pursue a life of ease and pleasure. When We Dead
Awaken (1899) is Ibsen's shortest play. It is an autobiographical play which deals
with an aging rebel, despairing of life and racked with guilt, he experiences an
ambiguous victory at the moment of death.
In these final works, Ibsen dealt with the conflict between art and life and
shifted his focus from the individual in society to the individual alone and
isolated. With The Wild Duck and Hedda Gabler, Ibsen entered a period of
transition during which he continued to deal with modern, realistic themes and
premises, but made increasing use of symbolism, metaphor, metamorphosis,
characterization and unity of opposites.
Ibsen's Moral and Political Ideals and Criticism
The themes of Ibsen's plays are reflections and dramatic incarnations of
his own moral and socio-political points of view. They seem to be some central
questions of the modern, bourgeois and capitalist age. Ibsen wrote in the second
half of the nineteenth century. At that time the Scandinavian societies (of which
Norway is a part) went through an enormous transformation by the break-
through of modernization, capitalism and bourgeois society. Ibsen focused in
many of his plays on problems of mature and capitalist society. He was
concerned with the crisis of liberalism, the conflicts of the bourgeois families,
woman's emancipation, and the psychological break-down of the individual and
the power of economy over human relations in capitalist society.
Ibsen was born into and grew up in a society that was underdeveloped
compared to the rest of Western Europe. When he went into his "voluntary
exile" on the European continent in 1864, he left a backward province only
beginning to get a modern industry. Twenty seven years later he returned to a
society that had undergone rapid development, capitalist industries had emerged
at a fast pace, political conflicts were sharp and a strong national literary and
artistic tradition had emerged. Ibsen thus had a European distance to the
problems created by rapid change in a society in the periphery of capitalism. In
Scandinavia the phases of capitalist development were pressed together in time,
so the changes appeared as especially harsh and contradictory. Ibsen made these
conflicts visible in their psychological effects. His dramas thus gave a core
understanding of the social processes that made up the basis of late capitalist
Because of this advent of large-scale capitalism, overwhelming the self-
supporting petty bourgeoisie, one of Ibsen's moral and political ideals was to
criticize that capitalistic spirit which had invaded his small native country. It was
a long fight for integrity and dignity, a battle against the despised servility and
hypocrisy of the middle class and against the evils which the bourgeoisie beheld
in its offspring and enemy - capitalism. Consequently, numerous revolutionary
movements appeared at that time. As a youth of twenty Ibsen called upon the
people to fight against tyrants, he wrote Catiline with case of a slandered rebel,
which seethed with indignation. Generally, his early plays showed a kind of
success since they dealt with patriotism, but he refused the encapsulation of his
thought in any single designation. The themes of plays such as The Burial
Mound, Lady Inger of Ostraat, The Feast of Solhang and The Vikings at Helgeland
motivated in the middle-class the patriotic pride and Norway's Viking past and
they evinced a spirit of protest against the capitalist debauch, against greed and
vanity. Ibsen was duty bound to defend the independence and integrity that had
been Brand's. His political and moral ideals are noticeably presented in A Public
Enemy. Dr. Stockman joins a struggle of the strong, honest bourgeois against
capitalism. Ibsen cannot see any definite social power which might support the
champion of truth in his claim. The essence of Ibsen's political ideal in this play
is that one must do one's duty and stand alone to face the whole majority.
In most of Ibsen's production there are some central fields of problems
that are examined. These problems become perceptible in various forms, but are
often expressions of a basic understanding of capitalist society. One of these
fields of problems is liberalism as an ideology. Ibsen connected to the liberal
utopia, the ideals of 1789, that to his generation become alive again in 1848. He
exposes that capitalist or bourgeois society is unable to achieve the proclaimed
liberty, equality and fraternity. The central conflict is the vacillation of
liberalism between adjustment to practical politics and the maintenance of the
utopia. Central to liberal thought is the concept of the free and autonomous
individual. Ibsen examined the problem of individualism over and over again.
Several dramas centered on the relationship between the individual and the
others, and whether the individual had the right to put himself above social and
A second field of problems is how the bourgeois family as an institution is
full of conflicts and also creates conflicts. The family is, in Ibsen's plays,
something people enter into after having abandoned their happiness, or they
enter blinded with the illusion that the family is a place of happiness. The
bourgeois individuals sell their love in favour of a marriage without love, but
with economical advantages. And all the parties suffer from this trade. The
family kills happiness; it is an institution that prevents emotional fulfillment.
Husband, wife and children were victims.
The family is also a place where power is executed, where all relations
appear as fight for power and domination. The weak women suffer, and the
weakest party, the children, is sacrificed. At the outset of the dramas the family
appears as isolated from society. It seems that Ibsen stuck to the myth about the
family as a place for emotional intimacy and commitment. However, conflicts are
drawn into the scene. They appear through relationships between family
members. They enter as demands from society outside the family. The conflicts
could not be locked out, and the myth about isolated happiness in the family
breaks down under the pressure from a society where there is no happiness. The
breakdown comes in relationships with the economy and politics. The family is
interconnected with these institutions in society.
Women suffer more than men under these circumstances, but they carry
a vision about freedom and another kind of life. According to Ibsen's moral
ideals, women should be strong and independent enough to stand up to an
oppressive and patriarchal society; Nora, in A Doll's House, abandons not only
her husband, but her entire family, in an effort to discover herself and become a
liberated woman. It is a strong blow directed to a male-dominated society, by
showing not only that a woman could break free from the social handcuffs, but
that men are actually quite powerless in the face of a strong woman; Nora's
husband, Torvald, is left weeping as she leaves him at the close of the play.
As far as females are concerned, Ibsen lays a great stress upon the
emancipation of the individual, especially of female, and the principle of
heredity. He relentlessly studies a variety of human relationships: sister and
brother, father and son, husband and wife etc. He endeavors to tell the spectators
that such relationships are usually based on sentimentalism, on misogyny, on
patriarchy, on hypocrisy and lies. He thinks that woman cannot be herself in the
society of the present day, which is an exclusively masculine society, with laws
framed by men and with judicial system that judges feminine conduct from a
masculine point of view. Many of his plays represent damning indictment of the
conventional notions that kept females in their place during Ibsen's time.
Therefore, in his plays Ibsen criticizes the old corrupted morality of these people
who still tied to the conventional thoughts from which they cannot release
themselves. These are the ghosts Ibsen talks about in his Ghosts. They live like a
deadly virus inside us under their spell and we are unconscious of them.
A third field of problems in Ibsen's dramas is the power of money. Money
dominates and determines the relations between people. It poisons the
atmosphere in the bourgeois homes. In many dramas money joins husband and
wife together; money is an obstacle to happiness and intimacy and leads to death
and destruction. The society Ibsen depicts is dominated by economic capital.
People exist only as partners on business contracts. All relations are soaked with
economy and struggle for power. Love becomes a commodity for trade and
friendships could be cynically exploited. Private happiness is in an unsolvable
conflict with economic interests.
The core of Ibsen's moral ideals resides in the principle that honesty in
facing reality is the first requisite of a decent life. The dark depth of human
nature must be explored and scrutinized to be finally illuminated. Life is full of
pitfalls, humbugs, hypocrisies, and vague diseases which must be recognized to
be avoided and then to be cured. For Ibsen, this must be the moral obligation of
the intellectuals in any society. They should have enough courage and faith in the
human soul. Man should depend on himself to release himself from the old social
and political restrictions through patient endurance and nobler ideals. Man
should not expect any type of salvation from without; we alone can help
ourselves, and this is a vital point to comprehend Ibsen's plays. Ibsen regards
democracy, which is believed to be as a cure-all, as much a failure as any other
political form. The intelligent and morally courageous minority is always
controlled and led by the tyrannical majority.
In a letter to George Brandes*, shortly after the Paris Commune, Henrik
Ibsen wrote about the State and political liberty:
The State is the curse of the individual. How has the
national strength of Prussia been purchased? By the
sinking of the individual in a political and
geographical formula... The State must go!
Undermine the idea of the State, set up in its place
spontaneous action, and the idea that spiritual
relationship is the only thing that makes for unity, and
you will start the elements of a liberty which will be
something worth possessing.
(Goldman: 1914, 11-12)
* George Morris Cohen Brandes (4 February 1842 - 19 February 1927) was a Danish critic and
scholar who had great influence on Scandinavian and European literature from the 1870s through the
turn of the 20th century. Normally he is seen as the theorist behind "the Modern Break-through" of
Scandinavian culture. At the age of 30, Brandes formulated the principles of a new realism and
naturalism, condemning hyper-aesthetic writing and fantasy in literature. According to Brandes,
literature should be an organ "of the great thoughts of liberty and the progress of humanity. " His
literary goals were shared by many authors, among them the Norwegian Naturalistic dramatist Henrik
Ibsen abominates every institution which is based on a lie and he regards
it as a symbol of injustice. Such issues form the keynote to the significance of his
plays, as well as to the psychology of Henrik Ibsen himself. Above all he thunders
his fiery indictment against the four deadly sins of modern society:
the Lie inherent in our social arrangements; Sacrifice
and Duty, the twin curses that fetter the spirit of man;
the narrow mindedness and pettiness of
Provincialism, that stifles all growth; and the lack of
Joy and Purpose in Work which turns life into a vale
of misery and tears.
(Goldman: 1914, p.12)
In fact, Ibsen writes of his times, his contemporaries, and the social and political
concerns and problems of the day. He is the first dramatist in modern drama
who criticizes severely the social and political circumstances of his society. He
puts under debate the relationship between sexes, social and political moralities,
commercial considerations versus general social considerations, environmental
consideration, the individual emancipation etc. In his realistic plays, Ibsen is
merciless in his quest to expose all social facade, hypocrisy and pretense. He is an
inflexible and destructive dramatist of all false idols and corruption and
dynamiter of all social and political deceit and dishonesty. He endeavors to
deracinate every stone of the social structure. He is looking for truthfulness and
freedom. There is hardly a literary work that has meant so much to women's
liberation in practically all cultures all over the world as A Doll's House. For him
liberty means the spiritual regeneration of humankind. To Ibsen, the word
'Liberty' does not know any limitation or restriction, and whenever man says
'Now I have it,' shows that he has lost it.
Realism is the artistic portrayal of life or reality as it is. It is thus not
concerned with idealization, with rendering things as beautiful when they are
not, or in any way presenting them in any guise as they are not. Realistic drama
is an attempt to recreate life on stage, a movement away from the conventional
melodramas and sentimental comedies of the 1700s. It is expressed in theatre
through the use of symbolism, character development, stage setting and
storyline. Realism also provided and continues to provide a medium through
which playwrights can express their views about societal values, attitudes and
morals. The artist's function is to report and describe what he sees as accurately
and honestly as possible. Thus drama becomes an experience closely impinging
on the conscience of the audience. Realism is conceived as a laboratory in which
the ills of society, familial problems, and the nature of relationships could be
'objectively' presented for the judgment of impartial observers. One may
venture to say that the Realistic Era* is the rebellion against romantic idealism.
People are more skeptical against society and want to show its faults - they want
to show that the world is not perfect.
The playwright Henrik Ibsen initiates the realistic period with plays focus
on contemporary, day-to-day themes that skillfully reveal both sides of a conflict
through brilliantly capturing psychological detail. Anton Chekhov, in Russia,
would bring the form to its stylistic apogee with plays whose even minor
characters seem to breathe the air we do and in which the plots and themes are
developed primarily between the lines.
From the Greeks to William Shakespeare to the modern theatre, the
drama has been addicted to certain dramatic and theatrical means used to stun
and awe audiences: stolen letters, half-overheard conversations, whispered
conspiracies, twins separated at death, mistaken identities, and ad nauseam. One
of Ibsen's most significant contributions to drama is getting rid of all that
hokum, forswearing artifices of suspense and giving the spectators real suspense
instead. He throws out the kings, queens, princes, princesses and all the
courtiers. He throws out the verse, the verbal affectations, tricks and traps, the
outsized plots and the outworn plotting. He succeeds in making life express itself
in the text and on the stage. None can excel the realism of the characters which
Ibsen learned to put on the stage. One sees them walk and stand, one hears them
talk, as if they really lived. The dialogue is free from any brilliant artificiality.
Beginning his career, Ibsen writes few romantic history verse plays but they find
no critical or financial success. He then adopts the craftsmanship of the well-
made play and he assimilates the play-formula for his own dramatic purposes.
He finds in that dramatic technique the vehicle for his social and political drama.
In all schools of realism objectivity of some kind is a main tenet. The
realist, in his most elementary guise, wishes to present reality by allowing
characters and events to appear in his work with as little sign of his personal
intervention as possible. While he does not deny the imaginative faculty, he often
minimizes its importance. Opposing symbolist predilections for an esoteric
subject-matter, for perfection of form, and for an elite audience, the realist offers
his work as a means of communication among men, dealing with large subjects
in a comprehensible way, form subordinated to content. Frequently he upholds a
theory of historical or natural determination to explain the objective conditions
that control both his characters and himself as writer.
Ibsen added to his social and political realistic plays some symbolic
touches to create a dual meaning and an exhaustive and deep rationalization to
the dramatic complications and dialogues in his plays. He surpasses realism and
enters into the realm of "symbolic realism". He understands symbolism as a
Ibsen was Norwegian but classified in the English Realistic era because he influenced so many
writers of that time.
form of art which achieves our desire to come to grips with reality and at the
same time transcends it. It gives us the concrete with abstract simultaneously.
We need the abstract in order to transcend the boundaries of reality. However,
the human being's mind can transcend the boundaries of reality in two ways: by
means of symbols - which lead into the domain of abstraction; or by presenting
reality as it is, by which it transcends its limitations, develops meaning through
its own power and strength, and instigates the pillars for the society of the future.
The dramatist typically uses symbols when he is unable to seize the meaning of
that particular reality, or when he cannot accept the synthesis to which the
development of that reality leads. He then employs symbols when he cannot solve
difficult, sometimes insoluble problem. For if thought can easily penetrate reality
it does not need to wander forth into the realm of symbolism. This is conditional
since drama is a mirror of reality - then clearly using symbolism with a realistic
context needs a kind of social consciousness of a given society. In other words,
Ibsen never intends to break down his device of the realistic form of writing; yet
at the same time, he does not want to safely remain within that form, either. The
outcome is his within-revolt to his own writing form. He attains this half escape
as he carefully instills symbolic meanings in the very soil of realism. In so doing
he seems to surpass the limit of photographic presentations of human reality. It
seems in the end that Ibsen in his career tries to leap into the unknown by means
of the symbolic device, refusing to be solely satisfied with his previous
Plays like A Doll's House, A Public Enemy and The Ghosts are realistic,
and they, like all the major plays, are replete with contextual symbolism. In A
Doll's House, for instance, the title itself symbolizes the dependent and
dehumanized role of the wife within traditional middle-class marriages. (The
Norwegian-Danish word for doll-dukke- can also mean "puppet" or
"marionette". In addition, the entire notion of Norway (cold, legal, male) is
contrasted symbolically with Italy (warm, emotional, female).
A Doll's House is the second play, after Brand, in which Ibsen made use of
the kind of symbolism. Later on, he writes ten plays; and with each of them his
mastery of symbol increased, growing more detailed, more minute, and more
elaborate. In A Doll's House, the main features of his method are plainly
indicated. In later plays he grows more skillful in his use of the device, but in
each case the symbol of the play is some material entity or event, a part of the
mechanism of the piece. This entity is introduced early in the action; it is
wrought more or less closely into the structure of the play; and its last
appearance is the climax. From this point to the end of the play it becomes a
chain of results.
Of the conventional symbolism Ibsen's work has no trace. His work gives,
first and foremost, a sense of intense reality- of actuality even. It is not till later
that a hidden intent is guessed, and when this intention is traced to its source, the
symbols discovered are original. Each of them-the pistol, the tarantella, the wild
duck, the white horses, and the rotten ship - reveals perfectly that for which it
stands. They originate in Ibsen's imagination, and serve his purpose because
they are the concrete images of his thought.
The mechanism of Ibsen's symbols is constructed on the idea that symbols
stand, first, for a character of the play; and second for the meaning of the play as
a whole. An object or event is used as a central theme or motive of the play.
Toward this symbol the ostensible action of the play moves, and from it, it
recedes. This object or event-as the tarantella in A Doll's House - stands for the
character of the play, Nora, whose soul is the stage of the real action of the play;
and thus the symbol stands, at last, for the play itself.
Ibsen's use of symbol is altogether distinctive. The symbols are presented
in a very everyday ordinary, realistic setting. Everything, that the heroes of
Ibsen bespeak, possesses a twofold meaning, that which is realistic and of the
everyday ordinary, and that which is symbolic, signifying events and judgments
of the spiritual world. This endows something especially remarkable to all
Ibsen's dialogues. Ibsen, just like Dostoevsky*, is interested not so much by the
psychology of people, as rather by the problem of spirit. Yet an art-form, which
deals with the problem of spirit, cannot be only realistic. The realism of everyday
life is transformed into the 'symbolics' of another level of being, of spiritual
happenings. And all great artistry contains within itself an element of the
From 1885 Ibsen is back in Norway. His behavior gives an impression of a
ruthless artist's egoism, but this picture is modified in his four latest plays; The
Master Builder, Little Eyolf (1894), John Gabriel Borkman (1896) and When We
Dead Awaken (1900). These works are regarded as epoch-making art of balance
on the edge between realism, symbolism and modernism.
To conclude, Ibsen is the first modern playwright of realism, which
results from his courageous revolt to the tradition of romanticism. His symbolic
plays must be a crystal of his realistic writing. In such plays, he, again, revolts to
his own device, i.e., realism. He revolts to himself, not as completely deriving
from the realistic mode but rather implicitly planting symbolic meanings in the
very realistic soil. In so doing he seems to surpass the limit of photographic
presentations of human reality.
Female's Identity vs. the Patriarchal World in A Doll's House
The actual feminist plays such as A Doll's House (1879) and Hedda Gabler
(1890) by Henrik Ibsen represent the first signs of the rise of feminism The plays
reflect his social, economical and political views of women's emancipation in his
time, his response to the Scandinavian proto-feminist movement, and thus his
disagreement over women's identity in domestic space. Contemporary feminist
writers (Finney: 1989, Velissariou: 1993, Templeton: 1994) record the ways in
* Fyodor Mikhaylovich Dostoyevsky (1821 -1881) was a Russian fiction writer, essayist, and
philosopher whose works include Crime and Punishment and The Brothers Karamazov .
which these plays still give us tools to discuss women's status in the domestic
space and how this status requires further analysis and debate. Moreover, an
examination of staging techniques will reveal that modifications of the feminist
space gave a theatrical embodiment to women's identities in the domestic sphere.
Although Henrik Ibsen was not a modernist, his complex representation of
women led him away from previous staging techniques and forms of
characterization in viewing the social and political issues. He was a trigger for
theatrical modernism through the realism of his female characters.
Ibsen was one of the main advocates for social revolution. He was
notorious for weaving controversial topics into his plays, as well as for including
female major characters. He knew very well that society's oppression over
women was a prime example of the hamper it placed over every person's
potential. Writing about women allowed him to make a universal call, not only to
women, but to every sentient being. His plays cried out for the female's identity.
In A Doll s House, Ibsen portrayed the altruistic nature instilled into women by
society, the consequential stunt of their development, and the need for them to
find their own voice in a world dominated by men. In this play, Ibsen does a
wonderful job of presenting the character of Nora as a person who goes though
an awakening about her life. In the beginning, she concerns herself only with
being a perfect wife and mother according to the social norms of the time. Later,
she realizes that she cannot continue just being her husband's shadow.
Eventually, she decides that she has duties to herself that are above of those of
being a wife. She confronts the fact that she is not a complete being the way that
her husband, society and the church want for her to be.
The story is simply about a nineteenth century ideal family. Nora Helmer
is the beloved wife of Torvald Helmer. They have a very nice, comfortable house,
three kids and lovely friends. They have been married for eight years. Torvald
was just promoted for a higher position in the bank. This is what we see in the
beginning of the play. When Torvald started to talk, we can feel that something
is wrong with this picture. Through many dramatic complications, Nora
discovers that her life is just a bundle of lies and a stretched line of subjection to
the masculine power of her husband, family and society which turned her into a
mere 'doll'. Finally, she decides to leave everything behind to find her own
identity outside, facing life and having her own experience.
Torvald Helmer the handsome, young, successful husband of Nora and
whose reputation controls his life and work is one of the main characters in the
play. He has always been a good picture of how people are expected to be in the
middle class society, and the moral rules he follows are nothing other than those
that society enforces on middle class people. For Torvald Helmer as with most of
the people of his class, to be worthy is to be in the 'right'. Torvald's job as a
bank manager is very dear to him and so far we can say that he has earned his
way up. Torvald is an intelligent man, but his intelligence is limited and bound to
the social rules around him, we get no sense that he has a vital inner life of which
he is aware but at the end of the play, we get the hint that it is starting to grow.
In other words, Torvald's self-image is portrayed by how people think and see
him, the way he sees himself is the way others see him and judge him. His
opinion of others is wholly determined by how they affect his social position.
Torvald's moral codes are derived from society's expectations, meaning that
everything he does has to be well calculated before he dares to take one step
ahead. In short, he is an ideal representative of the mentality of the nineteenth
People to Torvald are classified differently according to their importance
to him and their social context. A perfect example of that is how he treats Mrs.
Linde and Krogstad, In the case of the first, Torvald treats Mrs. Linde carelessly
as she has no significance to him what so ever. When Nora asks him to find a job
for Mrs. Linde, he replies grimly, "Ah! Well, it's very likely I may be able to find
something for you." ( Act I, 18) But in Krogstad's situation, he treats him very
badly and he wants him gone out of the bank as Krogstad's conversations with
him are too embarrassing for his new position as a bank manager. Torvald tells
But I know him when we were boys. It was one of
those rash friendships that so often prove an incubus
in after life. I may as well tell you plainly, we were
once on very intimate terms with one another. But this
tactless fellow lays no restraint on himself when other
people are present. On the contrary, he thinks it gives
him the right to adopt a familiar tone with me, and
every minute it is "I say, old fellow!" and that sort of
thing. I assure you it is extremely painful to me. He
would make my position in the Bank intolerable.
(Act II, 35)
How Torvald thinks of himself is very bound to how people think and expect out
of him that nothing else matters.
Nora is a fragile character and she relies on Torvald for her identity. This
reliance had kept her from having her own individuality. Yet when it is
discovered that Nora only plays the part of the good typical housewife who stays
at home to please her husband, it is then understandable that she is living not for
herself but to please others. From early childhood, Nora has always held the
opinions of either her father or Torvald, hoping to please them. She considers
herself fortunate. Indeed, she worships her husband, believes in him
unreservedly, and she is sure that if ever her safety should be mentioned,
Torvald, her idol, her god, would perform the miracle. This mentality makes her
childish, showing that she has no ambitions of her own. Because she had been
pampered all of her life, first by her father and now by Torvald, she tells her
/ mean that I was simply transferred from papa's
hands into yours. You arranged everything according
to your own taste, and so I got the same tastes as you -
or else I pretended to, I am really not quite sure which
- I think sometimes the one and sometimes the other.
When I look back on it, it seems to me as I had been
living here like a poor woman - just from hand to
mouth. I have existed merely to perform tricks for you,
(Act III, 63)
It is obvious that the influence Nora's father had on her was impacting because
of his imposing male authority over an innocent female whom he "toys" with as a
doll that developed into the image that her father expected of her following the
societal prejudiced values.
Torvald wrongly thinks that Nora is stupid, and must be controlled. He
controls her housekeeping budget and how much she can spend on certain
purchases. He does not know, and he does not want to know that Nora, herself,
can earn some money. Instead, he expects her always be dependent on his salary.
Nevertheless, the matter is different; Nora did many things throughout her
married life that were regarded as sins by the masculine society she was living in.
It is an exclusively male society with laws drafted by men, and with counsel and
judges who judge feminine conduct from the male point of view. The first sin was
that when Nora worked secretly to help her husband financially. At that time,
woman was not allowed to work without her husband's consent. She reveals her
secret to her friend Christine:
Well, then I have found other ways of earning money.
Last winter I was lucky enough to get a lot of copying
to do; so I locked myself up and sat writing every
evening until quite late at night. Many a time I was
desperately tired; but all the same it was a tremendous
pleasure to sit there working and earning money. It
was like being a man. (Act 1, 14)
The second sin was that she had borrowed 250 pounds from Nils
Krogstad by forging her father's signature. She spent the money to save her
husband's life. She thought that her love for father and husband would justify
her crime, forgery. In fact, Nora could not take out the loan herself because she
was a woman and only men could take out loans; woman could only take out a
loan if she had the consent of a husband or a father. Nora was afraid that if
Torvald knew that she had taken initiative to borrow money to help him, it
would be "painful and humiliating" for him.
Mrs. Linde: And since then have you never told your
secret to your husband?
Nora: Good Heavens, no! How could you think so? A
man who has such strong opinions about these
things! And besides, how painful and humiliating it
would be for Torvald with his manly independence, to
know that he owed me anything! It would upset our
mutual relations altogether; our beautiful happy
home would no longer be what it is now. ( Act 1, 13 )
Nora hides the fact that she has done something illegal from Torvald. She
is given the opportunity to tell him and maybe get his support or advice on the
situation, and she lies to him to hide the truth. These lies are followed by a third
one in which she becomes the victim of two masculine powers. When Torvald
becomes manager of the bank in which Krogstad is employed, and threatens the
man with dismissal, Krogstad naturally fights back. He asks Nora to help him,
"Mrs. Helmer, you will be so good as to use your influence on my behalf." (Act I,
21) When she refuses to submit to his demand, he threatens her, "if I lose my
position a second time, you shall lose yours with me." (Act I, 25) Later, she tells
her husband that the reason she does not want Torvald to fire Krogstad is that
"this fellow writes in the most scurrilous newspapers... He can do [Torvald] an
unspeakable amount of harm. I am frightened to death of him." (Act II, 34)
Torvald does not know that if he fires Krogstad, the consequences will affect his
whole life. The fourth lie is that Nora hides her own potency of revolution from
her husband until the end of the play. She always plays the role that she has
accustomed to, being the doll. She does not show any sign of dissatisfaction or
uprising to Torvald. When she finds the appropriate moment to rebel, she leaves
everything behind and slams the door.
Ibsen sets up Act I by first introducing us to the central issue: Nora and
her relation to the outdoor world (Nora entering with her packages). She serves
as a symbol for women of the time; women who were thought to be content with
the comfort of modern society with no thought or care of the world in which they
lived. She appears childlike and coquettish. She orders Helene in an excitable
tone to hide the Christmas tree as the children "mustn't see it till tonight." (Act
I, 3) Nora's secretiveness in attempting to hide the tree, extends further, and is a
constant theme. As the play reveals, Nora does delight in material wealth,
having been labeled a 'spendthrift' from an early age. She projects the attitude
that money is the key to happiness.
Mrs. Linde: (smiling) Nora, Nora, haven't you
learnt sense yet? In our schooldays you were a great
Nora: (laughing) yes, that is what Torvald says now.
(Act I, 9)
One of Torvald's fatal masculine faults that he fails in scrutinizing Nora's
depth and her psychology adequately. He treats her as a pet using animal images
and phrases in addressing her. The masculine pride and selfishness inside the
Victorian male prevents him from understanding what the wife actually needs
and expects from her husband rather than shelter, food, children and sex.
Torvald, referring to Nora, asks, "Is that my little lark twittering out there?"
(Act 1,3). Nora replies to him "Yes, it is" (Act I, 4), running up to Torvald like a
puppy. It is evident that Nora is a cheerful woman, always wants to please her
husband in order to get money from him. In addition, Torvald thinks that she is
his spoiled bird. After Calling Nora 'a lark', Torvald, in contrast, calls her "Is
that my squirrel rustling?" (Act I, 4). He calls her 'a squirrel' because he knows
she hides something from him. She hides away the bag of macaroons from him.
She willingly accepts Torvald comparing her with a little animal and even seems
to identify with this image, "You haven't any idea how many expenses we
skylarks and squirrels have, Torvald." (Act I, 6) Nora appears completely
submitted to her husband, ready to accept whatever he would say or do. Torvald
scolded her as if she were a child, "Hasn't Mrs. Sweet Tooth been breaking rules
today in town..." (Act I, 6). Then, Nora would respond as a young child who
would face punishment, "I shouldn't think of going against your wishes." (Act I,
6) Their relationship consists of nothing truly real. Everything is fun and games
and for show. This type of communications cannot be healthy in any
relationship, and greatly held up the relationship between the two. Finally, when
Nora realizes that they need to seriously converse the timing is too late, "We
have been married now eight years. Does it not occur to you that this is the first
time that we two, you and I, husband and wife, have had a serious
conversation?" (Act III, 62-63) This lack of seriousness and practicality in their
relationship will be one of the central factors of their separation.
The external factors in the play have a significant dramatic role in
constructing the characters' catastrophe. One of the main turning points in
Nora's life is Christine's visit, Nora's friend. Christine gives the reader an initial
impression of Nora's opposite. Christine Linde is a pale, worn woman who is
completely independent. Her conversation with Nora reveals that Christine was
left poor and alone after her husband, for whom she did not care, passed away.
Christine accepted to stay with her husband because she reasoned her present
situation would leave her no other option. She felt she had to take care of her
two brothers and bedridden mother. If she had not married this wealthy man,
she would have had her freedom, but it would have been a difficult struggle.
Instead, she surrendered her freedom for an easier life. Eight years later, the
death of her husband gave her enough of a jolt to set her back in control of her
own life. Christine represents the initial impulse that pushed Nora ahead in her
metamorphosis. She is the first character who recognizes that Nora's marriage is
built on lies. Furthermore, the spectators may see in Christine Nora's future
destiny of a rebellious woman against all social conventions towards finding her
female identity. Still there is a hope for Christine to renew her old relationship
with Krogstad after her tragic failure in life as Nora may return to Torvald to
begin a new life in the future.
The second crucial turning point in Nora's life is that when Torvald
decides to dismiss Krogstad from the bank, Krogstad told Nora that she either
had to get him his job back or that he was going to tell Torvald about the loan
and forgery. Nora is terrified and she begs him not to do it for the sake of her
Nora: show it, then; think of my little children.
Krogstad: Have you and your husband thought of
mine? (Act II, 42)
The second spark of her metamorphosis starts when Krogstad tells her
that he is going to destroy her husband by this letter and he and nobody else will
be the new manager. Nora replies,
Nora: That's a thing you will never see!
Krogstad: Do you mean that you will -?
Nora: / have courage enough for it now.
Krogstad: Oh, you can 't frighten me. A fine, spoilt
lady like you -
Nora: You will see, you will see. (Act II, 43)
Nora's confrontation to Krogstad refers to the fact that she begins to
discover her own identity as a female, no more weakness or subjection or
servitude of any kind to any one, even if this one is the family itself. She has the
same quantity of courage Krogstad has now in defending his job and family. "I
have courage enough for it now" refers in fact to her potential as a new woman
who should restore her self-defence against those intruders, tyrants and
Krogstad leaves the house and Nora's eyes follow him. She goes to the hall
door, opens it slightly and sees Krogstad drop the letter into the box. Nora utters
a stifled cry, and runs across the room to the table by the sofa. She whispers with
herself, "In the letter-box. (Steals across the hall door.) There it lies - Torvald,
Torvald, there is no hope for us now!" (Act II, 44) Before Torvald confronts her
with the letter, Nora is on her way to commit suicide, determined that Torvald
should not have to sacrifice his life for her. In this way, they have an equal
relationship. However, she is tremendously disappointed to discover that he
clearly does not intend to sacrifice himself for her.
When Torvald reads the letter he knows the secret of the loan, he gets
angry accusing Nora of ruining his life, telling her that she will no longer be able
to see her children or maintain their marriage except in public appearances.
"You will still remain in my house, that is a matter of course. But I shall not
allow you to bring up the children; I dare not trust them to you." (Act III, 60)
Nora even asks him whether he would give his life for her and her fears are
confirmed when he answers that he would never sacrifice his honor for a loved
Nora recognizes how egocentric her husband is after he reads Krogstad's
letter. He rewards Nora for her sacrifice to save his health by accusing her of
being a very bad wife:
What a horrible awakening! All these eight years -
she who was my joy and pride - a hypocrite, a liar -
worse, worse - a criminal! The unutterable ugliness
of it all! - For shame! For shame!. ..all your father's
want of principle has come out in you. No religion, no
morality, no sense of duty. (Act III, 59-60)
The accumulation of Nora's recognition increases the tension of action.
She asks her angry husband, "Let me go. You shall not suffer for my sake. You
shall not take it upon yourself." (Act III, 59) Torvald sees no use of this since his
reputation will be destroyed. He tells his wife, "Do you understand what you
have done? Answer me! Do you understand what you have done?" (Act III, 59)
She replies, "Yes, now I am beginning to understand thoroughly." (Act III, 59)
When Krogstad's second letter comes in which he promises not to show them up
or to accuse them lawfully, Torvald gets happy crying,
Nora! No, I must read it once again -, yes, it is true! I
am saved! Nora, I am saved!
Nora: And I?
Helmer: You too, of course... (Act III, 61)
When Torvald realizes that neither his pride nor his social reputation will
be touched, the first sentence he utters is, "I am saved." Not 'you are saved', or
'We are saved', since the priority is for the male to be saved first. Nora feels that
she has spent her life with an alien. Her recognition of the self illuminates her
way to discover her authentic female identity which in turn will shape and decide
her real relationship with her husband and with the outer world. She is now able
to become an independent human being and not just an elegant doll. She gets a
lesson that Christine has learned fully. Therefore, Nora must educate and
support herself in facing the outer world as well.
Even the term 'freedom' in A Doll's House takes various connotations
and denotations. For instance, Nora's understanding of the meaning of freedom
evolves throughout the play. In the first act, she believes that she will be totally
"free" as soon as she has repaid her debt, because she will have the opportunity
to devote herself fully to her domestic responsibilities. She says:
My goodness, it's delightful to think of, Christine!
Free from care! To be able to be free from care, quite
free from care; to be able to play and romp with the
children; to be able to keep the house beautifully and
have everything just as Torvald likes it! (Act 1, 15)
After Krogstad blackmails her, however, she reconsiders her conception
of freedom and questions whether she is happy in Torvald's house, subjected to
his orders and edicts.
We have been married now eight years. Does it not
occur to you that this is the first time we two, you and
I, husband and wife, have had a serious conversation?
(Act III, 63)
By the end of the play, Nora seeks a new kind of freedom. She wishes to be
relieved of her familial obligations in order to follow her own ambitions, beliefs,
Nora finally succeeds in diagnosing her relationship with her husband
and consequently resolves to leave him. She believes that true marriage is
impossible between them because neither of them loves the other, or is even
capable of doing so. Nora says, "You have never loved me. You have only
thought it pleasant to be in love with me." (Act III, 63) Nora realizes that, before
she can be a wife, she must first discover herself through venturing out into the
Helmer: Before all else, you are a wife and a mother.
Nora: / don 't believe that any longer. I believe that
before all else I am a reasonable human being, just as
are - or, at all events, that I must try and become one.
I know quite well, Torvald, that most people would
think you right, and that views of that kind are to be
found in books; but I can no longer content myself
with what most people say, or with what is found in
books. I must think over things for myself and get to
(Act III, 65)
When Nora closed behind her the door of her doll's house, she made the
correct choice and opened wide the gate of life for woman. (Goldman: 1914, 45)
She would start her life as Christine had done and Torvald would continue his
life without change - for he valued honor above the love of Nora. Only perfect
freedom of having one's identity and communion can make a true bond between
man and woman.
Finally, Ibsen uses symbols to enhance the main social ideas he criticizes
in his plays. For instance, he uses the Tarantella dance as a symbol to present
Nora's attempts to express or to announce herself and her will of emancipation.
This dance is often said to be a dance simulating the furious whirling movement
of those who have been bitten by the deadly tarantula spider: it is at one and the
same time a frenzied activity and a symptom of death. It goes from an already
quick tempo to an even quicker one, while alternating between major and minor
keys. It is characterized by fast movements, foot tapping, and on the women's
part, exaggerated ruffling of petticoats. It involves a lot of very fast spinning and
jumping until one cannot dance anymore and is so exhausted that they fall to the
ground. It is in constant uncertainty, like Nora's character.
The tarantella serves as her last chance to be Torvald's doll, to dance and
amuse him and to distract him from reading the letter. But at the same time the
dance summarizes Nora's tragic life with its delight, joy and happiness on the
surface, but it hides underneath a dreadful secret. It is the culmination of Nora's
doll life. Her heart, bosom and veins are full of poison, therefore, she has to
dance and dance violently to jump over the barrier of time and space, the wall of
fear and deception towards discovering her own salvation, liberation and
Nora: Now play for me! I am going to dance!
Helmer: (as he plays) Slower, slower!
Nora: / can 't do it any other way.
Helmer: Not so violently, Nora!
Nora: This is the way. (Act II, 47)
The dance is over. Torvald still feels that Nora must respond to his own desires.
He is sexually excited by her dance and he asks her to go to bed with him,
When I watched the seductive figures of the
Tarantella, my blood was on fire; I could endure it no
longer, and that was why I brought you down so
(Act III, 55)
Torvald is more interested in Nora physically than emotionally. When Nora
responds to his demand by saying, "Go away, Torvald! Leave me alone. I don't
want all this" (Act III, 55), Torvald asks, "Aren't I your husband?" (Act III, 56).
By saying this, he is implying that one of Nora's duties, as his wife, is to
physically please him at his command.
In conclusion, Nora is a victim of the masculine society. Ever since Eve
tempted Adam*, women have been detested in many ways and for many overt
reasons around the world and in various cultures. They are hated and feared for
their bodies, which tempt men to give into their "base" instincts; they are feared
and considered "unclean" because of their monthly cycle of bleeding; they are
hated for their unique feminine abilities, which are invariably considered
malicious - or worse, evil - by the misogynist individual or culture. Nora is no
exception. She has been treated by her husband according to this male criterion.
She rebels against this masculine tyranny but she has to sacrifice something very
precious so as to get her freedom and identity, to leave her children, her husband
and the whole family. She tries to prove that females can be equal to the male in
everything and autonomous in their own identities.
The Female Quest for Power in Hedda Gabler
Like conflict, power is a social phenomenon that we encounter every day
in our lives. "Power is everywhere." (Foucault: 1978, 334) Many of our social
relationships can be characterized as relations of power: employer and
Any religious parable mentioned in this dissertation is either quoted or paraphrased from the Bible.
employee, teacher and student, parent and child, and so on. Power has been the
focus of study and concern across all social science disciplines. Yet, as with
conflict, many questions remain unanswered.
Hedda, the famous daughter of General Gabler, married George Tesman
out of desperation, but she found life with him to be dull and tedious. During
their wedding trip, her husband spent most of his time in libraries doing
research in history for a book that is soon to be published. He is hoping to
receive a position in the university. Thea Elvsted, an old friend of Hedda's,
comes to visit her and tells her of Ejlert Lovborg, an old friend of both women.
Ejlert Lovborg , under the guidance of Thea Elvsted, has written two books - the
first, a general history of society, has been successful; the second, a meditation on
the future, exists only in manuscript but promises to make a considerable stir
when it is published. Complications unfold when we learn that Hedda herself has
had an earlier relationship with Lovborg, which broke up when she threatened
to shoot him. It seems that she did so because, for her, Lovborg had in some
undisclosed fashion begun to ask too much of the relationship. Since that time,
Lovborg's life has taken another turn. In the past, however, he has lived a life of
degeneration. Now he has quit drinking and has devoted himself to serious work.
Hedda's multifarious feelings about the relationship between Thea and
Lovborg fuel the action of the play. To what extent her obvious belief that
Lovborg should be liberated from the restrictions of his relationship with Thea is
a rationalization of her jealousy it is not easy to discern, but at any rate, she so
works upon him that he goes to a bachelor party given by Brack and gets drunk
once again. The consequence is that he loses the manuscript, which by this time
has acquired an intense emotional value for all concerned - they have come to
think of it, in fact, as a child. When the manuscript comes into Hedda's
possession, via Tesman (who found it by the roadside), she burns it; and when
the distraught Lovborg (who knows only that he has lost the 'child') returns to
her house, she encourages his thoughts of suicide - and puts into his hands one of
her father's pistols. Lovborg makes his way back to the rooms of 'Mademoiselle
Diana', where he believes the manuscript was stolen from him, and in a wild
scene (reported to Hedda by Judge Brack) the pistol goes off and Lovborg is
killed. Brack attempts to use these circumstances to play upon Hedda's fear of
scandal and so to blackmail her into a liaison. But in the denouement, while Thea
and Tesman are beginning to try to reconstruct Lovborg's manuscript from the
notes which Thea kept, Hedda shoots herself in the temple.
R. V. Sampson, in his psychoanalytic assessment of power, notes that a
human being "may seek to order his life and his relations with others on the
basis of love or on the basis of power." (Sampson: 1966, 1) According to
Sampson the human being cannot develop in both directions - a choice, whether
conscious or unconscious, between power and love must be made. Should the
force of power prevail in an individual, all subsequent human relationships will
be characterized by domination and subjection. John Stuart Mill's
comprehension of the extensive problems inherent in the sexual relationship is
indeed profound. He states:
That the principle which regulates the existing social
relations between the two sexes - the legal
subordination of one sex to the other - is wrong in
itself, and now one of the chief hindrances to human
improvement; and that it ought to be replaced by a
principle of perfect equality, admitting no power or
privilege on the one side, nor disability on the other.
(Mill: 1991, 471)
Mill believes that a female desire for power is a psychic consequence of the
domination / submission model of marriage. He notes:
An active and energetic mind, if denied liberty, will
seek for power: refused the command of itself, it will
asserts its personality by attempting to control others.
To allow to any human beings no existence of their
own but what depends on others, is giving far too high
a premium on bending others to their purposes.
Where liberty cannot be hoped for, and power can,
power becomes the grand object of human desire.
(Mill: 1991, 578)
In Hedda Gabler, Henrik Ibsen shared Mill his dissatisfaction with the
nineteenth century model of marriage, employing his social drama to elaborate
and illuminate the profound consequences of the traditional marriage. Eva Le
The theme. . . that interested Ibsen most was. . . that of
the different ethical codes by which men and women
live. ...Ibsen was accused of being an enemy to the
"sacred ties of marriage." People could not
understand that he believed it must be based on
spiritual communion - mere "living together" was not
enough. He felt that a man and a woman should,
ideally, go through life together as perfect equals, in
perfect honesty, free to develop - each in his own way
into a complete human entity. (Le Gallienne: 1981,
Indeed Ibsen's notebooks resounds with passages such as:
There are two kinds of spiritual law, two kinds of
conscience, one in man and another, altogether
different, in woman. They do not understand each
other; but in practical life the woman is judged by
man's law, as though she were not a woman but a
man. The wife in the play ends by having no idea of
what is right or wrong; natural feeling on the one
hand and belief in authority on the other have
altogether bewildered her. A woman cannot be herself
in the society of the present day, which is an
exclusively masculine society, with laws framed by
men and with a judicial system that judges feminine
conduct from a masculine point of view.
(Ibsen: 1978, 91)
Hedda Gabler holds the power over everything from start to finish. In
seeking the source of Hedda's unquenchable desire for power, one must look not
to the atmosphere of her marriage, but rather, to the atmosphere in which she
was brought up. The title itself represents the precise social theme of the drama.
Henrik Ibsen, using the name Hedda Gabler,* despite her marriage to George
Tesman, has conveyed to the reader the importance of social class. Hedda
prefers to identify herself as the daughter of General Gabler, not the wife of
The play opens to a set which is presided over by the portrait of "a
handsome, elderly man in a general's uniform." (Act I, 263) Nada Zeinnedine
makes the point that this "visual effect" is most effective in that it maintains "the
centrality of the father and his domineering influence on Hedda. In fact, the
portrait exists as representative of the long dead General Gabler as an actual
presence in the play. His presence is as real as Hedda's own and, in fact, more
real than the presence of Hedda's distracted husband. He lives in his portrait
and in his pistols and, most profoundly, in Hedda's dissatisfaction and self-
Hedda's mother is conspicuous by her absence. While General Gabler's
portrait presides over every scene in the play and he is mentioned frequently,
Mrs. Gabler receives not one mention. Though we assume that she died in
childbirth or shortly thereafter, there is nothing concrete to lead us to this
conclusion. Perhaps she died as Hedda will- by her own hand, perhaps not.
Perhaps she merely exemplifies Ibsen's concern with nineteenth century mothers
as reflected in his notes for A Doll House, "A mother in modern society [is] like
certain insects who go away and die when she has done her duty in the
propagation of the race." (Ibsen: 1978, 91) In any event, we have no information
regarding her existence: she is a non-entity. From her non-presence, we can
deduce that she provides no gender role model for her daughter.
Of General Gabler, we are told much. He was a general in the army, from
which we can conclude a love of law and order, an adherence to the ideology of
the patriarchy, a belief in the power of authority and brute force. Furthermore,
we understand that while he lived he held a highly respectable position in society.
Like Torvald Helmer in A Doll's House, he enjoyed the power accorded to the
upper middle class male by virtue of his gender, social position, and wealth. As
his only child, Hedda has access to this power and learns to value it above all
The name of 'Hedda' means warrior.
else. Instead of preparing his daughter for wifehood or motherhood, her father
raises her as he might raise a son. He teaches her what he knows: to ride and
shoot like a man. We further sense that within his techniques is the lesson that,
since there is no access to power for the female, all things female are worthless.
Because of her unique upbringing, Hedda cannot identify with the female world,
which has been misrepresented to her, and is forced to identify only with a world
in which she can never belong. She therefore develops a masculine gender
identity, which leads her to a profound self-hatred. Ibsen hints at this in his notes
where he says of Hedda, "she wants to lead a man's life." The result is that she
subscribes to a kind of female misogyny - she cannot help but loathe her very
existence. Therefore, she grows to adulthood, believing in her heart that the only
thing worth having is power - male power. Zeinnedine shrewdly observes that
"womanhood to Hedda is an ugly reality; manhood a beautiful ideal."
Hedda does not find a man who can compensate for her father's failure to
provide care and attention. On the other hand, she is not the kind of person who
can open up easily to anybody and accept guidance; she is a person who has to
keep everything under control, like a general. She is the one who wants to have
an influence on other people's lives. She wants to face the other with reality
instead of facing reality themselves. This is why she is her father's daughter. She
embodies the strict and closed attitudes of her soldier father, who is unable to
make any kind of compromise. She lives in a military dream world filled with
heroes and men who are able to control the world and their desires.
Jorgen Tesman's upbringing has been vastly different from Hedda's.
Where she has been raised by a domineering and authoritative male, Jorgen has
been raised by two maiden aunts and their devoted female servant in a home
where love, rather than power, was the ruling principle. The aunts, significantly,
have never married and therefore have no experience in the power politics
involved in the nineteenth century domination / submission model of marriage.
From the aunts, Jorgen learned to place value on love and to gain satisfaction
from pleasing the people who love him. One senses that even his profession was
chosen to gratify his aunts' expectations of him. Since he has been raised in a
female household where no value has been placed on power, Jorgen has little
understanding of it. He concerns himself at least as much with other people's
happiness as with his own - as Hedda points out "with touch of scorn," "My
husband's always worrying about what one's going to live on." (Act I, 292)
Indeed, though most critics dismiss Tesman as ridiculous, the perception of him
as such is more because we see him through Hedda's scorn than because of
anything concrete. Even the perpetual questions contained in his dialogue - the
ubiquitous "hm?" and "uh?" - indicate a willingness to please in that he does not
expect unanimous agreement as General Gabler no doubt would have.*
* Stein Haugom Olsen notes that "What is remarkable about Hedda Gabler,. Js that in this play Ibsen
calls into question the familiar Ibsenite values of lust of life, courage, defiance, and sublimity. In Hedda
Gabler, these qualities are indistinguishable from Lovborg's dissipation and debauchery, and Hedda's
cowardice, insensibility, and contempt. At the same time, society is much more benign in Hedda
Comparatively speaking, Hedda is a product of a marriage marked by
domination and submission - a marriage not unlike the Helmers' in A Doll's
House and the Alvings' in the Ghosts. Hedda is the fruition of the unhealthy
sexual relationships shown in A Doll's House and Ghosts. Michael Meyer, Ibsen's
biographer, notes that,
...the idea of creating such a character [Hedda] had
[long] been at the back of Ibsen's mind..., for his
rough notes for Rosmelsholm in 1886 contain a
sketch of a girl, intended as Rosmer's elder daughter
(though he finally decided not to include her in the
play), who "is in danger of succumbing to inactivity
and loneliness. She has rich talents which are lying
(Meyer: 1971, 648)
Hedda is selfish and spoiled, and she is more interested in flirting with
Judge Brack. She seems to gain pleasure from exercising power over others.
Hedda cannot fit herself into a confined or stereotyped social role, that of the
loving wife and mother. Thus, the play centers on the conflict between self-
indulgence and self-control, between willfulness and duty, between power and
submission. She confides to Judge Brack, "Oh, be quiet, I tell you! It often seems
to me that I've only got a gift for one thing in the world." (Act II, 307) This gift,
in fact, plants in Hedda's nature a kind of aggressiveness and violence before
and after marriage. Much like the opening scene of A Doll's House where the
power politics of the marriage is illuminated, the opening scene of Hedda Gabler
offers telling insight into the motivations of the central character and her
marriage. Though Hedda has arrived home only very late the previous evening,
already the maid expresses distress that she may not be to her new mistress's
liking. Furthermore, Hedda has told her that Jorgen must be referred to as
"Doctor Tesman" at all times though Berte has known Jorgen since his
childhood. We sense from the exchange that Hedda treats Berte merely as a paid
servant, not as the Tesmans perceive her, which is as a beloved family retainer.
In her relationship with Berte, there is no question of who holds the power as
Berte is the servant and Hedda is the mistress. Hedda has no need to be polite to
her, nor to manipulate her into doing her will since she is responsible for Berte's
livelihood and will therefore treat her as such.
To Hedda, Aunt Juliana is a different matter. As an older member of the
family into which Hedda has married (and, since she raised Hedda's husband,
Gabler than in other plays by Ibsen dealing with these themes. The immediate reaction of the reader
with his Ibsen - specs on is to mumble that Tesman is weak and insignificant, and to accept Hedda's
judgment of him. But Hedda's judgment must be balanced by a proper appreciation of Tesman's
virtues and of the tesmanesque background against which Hedda acts... Tesman provides the
background necessary to perceive the artistic point of Hedda's status, values, and attitudes."
she is, in effect, Hedda's mother-in-law), Aunt Juliana, within Hedda's skewed
vision, may consider herself in a position of power over Hedda. Thus, within this
relationship, Hedda must establish her power position immediately. To this end,
she removes all feminine touches to widow Falk's villa - the touches that she
would assume are the work of Aunt Juliana - the slipcovers on the furniture are
removed, as are the abundant flowers that decorate the room. Additionally, we
learn that though Aunt Juliana had made the trip to meet them at the pier on the
previous evening, Hedda had refused to allow her to ride home on the pretext
that her luggage required the space that Aunt Juliana would have occupied. That
the luggage could have been sent separately is unquestionable - Hedda's motive
was to establish herself in the position of power over Aunt Juliana distantly and
points out the earliness of her call - a comment which effectively conveys to
Tesman's aunt that she must not consider Hedda's house her second home.
Immediately after greeting the aunt, Hedda expresses anger at the maid for
leaving the door open. We suspect that Hedda knows full well that Aunt Juliana
has opened the glass door to let in some fresh air and sunlight. The message is
that she will not allow such familiarity in her home. Aunt Juliana responds by
conceding to Hedda and volunteering to close the door. But this is not the
response Hedda expected and her reply indicates an alarm that the situation does
not warrant, "Oh, no don't do that, please. (To Tesman) Just draw the blinds,
my dear, will you? That gives a softer light." (Act I, 273).
Hedda perhaps had expected Aunt Juliana to become argumentative and
the power struggle could escalate until Hedda proved victorious. But Aunt
Juliana has no understanding of this power competition and her concession to
Hedda's will makes Hedda look petty and nitpicking. Hedda follows with a
comment that the room is in need of fresh air with "All these precious flowers!"
(Act I, 273), though she is well aware that many of the flowers are gifts from
Tesman's aunts. Though Hedda's cut is followed by an invitation to sit, Aunt
Juliana senses Hedda's insincerity and makes ready to leave.
Though momentarily victorious in her power play, Hedda's strategy is
thwarted when Juliana distracts Tesman with her gift of love - his old bedroom
slippers embroidered by his invalid aunt. To Hedda, the slippers are a reminder
of the debt that Tesman owes his aunts and she misinterprets the action as a
power strategy on the part of Aunt Juliana - if Tesman is indebted to his aunts,
then she is also. Hedda counters by humiliating Tesman's aunt; we are given an
early indication of Hedda's hostility to the world in which she finds herself when,
on an impulse, she speaks slightingly of a hat which she knows to be Aunt
Juliana's, but which she pretends to believe is 'the maid's'. That she knew the
hat to be Aunt Juliane's is revealed to us through a subsequent passage of
dialogue between Hedda and Judge Brack.
In an attempt to lessen the tension caused by Hedda's intentional blunder,
Tesman asks his aunt to comment on the change in Hedda's physical appearance
- a clear suggestion of her initial pregnancy.
Tesman: Yes, isn't it? But, aunt Julie, take a good
look at Hedda before you go. See how nice and
charming she is.
Miss Tesman: Ah, my dear, there's nothing new in
that. Hedda has been lovely all her life.
Tesman: Yes, but have you noticed how plump she's
grown, and how well she is? How much she's filled
out on our travels?
(Act I, 275)
Aunt Juliana is not only placated, but overjoyed and attempts to embrace
Hedda in a congratulatory sign. Hedda is furious at Tesman and at his aunt for
presuming such familiarity - especially after she has worked so hard to establish
her position of greater power. She replies aggressively, "I am exactly the same as
I was when I went away." (Act I, 275) Hedda cannot understand that Tesman 's
aunt will put aside all of Hedda's caustic remarks to please her nephew - she
understands Aunt Juliana's gesture only as an attempt to gain a powerhold.
Further, what she infers to be Tesman's objectifications of her as vessel for his
progeny removes her from any power regardless of the situation. Aunt Juliana's
infantilizing gesture only adds fuel to the fire of her fury which is indicated by
her struggle to free herself from the embrace and by her actions when her
husband and his aunt leave the room. "Hedda crosses the room, raising her arms
and clenching her hands, as if in fury. Then she pulls back the curtains from the
glass door and stands there looking out." (Act I, 276)
Mrs. Thea Elvsted, a younger colleague of Hedda's during her
schooldays, is another different matter to Hedda. She wants information from
her and will therefore treat her with kid gloves until she is no longer needed,
after which she will cast her to the wind. Her desire for power over every
individual she meets is so great and so longstanding that she is able to see almost
instantly which tactic will work to gain the most power in any given situation.
She manipulates each situation toward this end. She senses immediately that
Thea Elvsted is unused to kindness and will be easily manipulated by even the
most scantily show of it. Thus, when Thea enters the scene, all anxious concern
just below the surface, Hedda makes much of her, "going to meet her in a
friendly way," and complimenting her on her gift of flowers. She "pulls Mrs.
Elvsted down on to the sofa and sits beside her." (Act I, 279); kisses her cheek,
and insists on being called by her first name. She strokes Thea's hands,
gradually drawing her out and procuring the necessary information. All of her
actions are, in stark contrast to her meeting, only moments before, with
Tesman's aunt. In fact, while her exchange with her new relative is
inappropriately cold and distant, her exchange with a woman she barely knows
is inappropriately familiar. The two exchanges work well side by side to
illustrate Hedda's resourcefulness in the power game: she will behave in
whatever manner the situation warrants to gain complete power in the situation.
By the time Thea leaves, she believes she has gained a new friend and ally; she
has rather put herself into the complete power of Hedda Gabler. Like the
Tesman family, Thea Elvsted is an easy mark for Hedda. While it seems that
Thea has suffered great oppression throughout her marriage to Sheriff Elvsted
(ironically, each of Ibsen's tyrants carry a title), she appears, like Nora Helmer,
to have transcended the power trap that Mrs. Alving and Hedda fall into.
Further, in a move not unlike Nora, Thea leaves her marriage to pursue not
power, but self-realization in the form of Lovborg - a man who has succeeded in
turning her into "a human being." Again, the similarity to Nora is striking:
Nora, as she takes leave of the dollhouse upon which she has built her life, tells
her husband, "I believe that before all else I am a reasonable human being, just
as you are - or, at all events, that I must try and become one." (Act III, 65) As
self-realized human being, Thea places value not upon the procurement of
power, but rather upon the procurement of love. Ironically, through her love for
Lovborg, Thea also gains power over him, a power which he readily admits and
which Hedda so envies.
A good deal of our sense of the play's direction is produced by the
interplay between these two female characters: Hedda and Thea. Thea's desire
for motherhood, her complete devotion to men, and even her beautiful hair
enrage Hedda. But what angers Hedda more is that Thea is in the same situation
as she is and escapes, while Hedda cannot break free. Hedda sees Thea as odious
and inferior to herself, yet Thea achieves things that Hedda cannot. Hedda
desires intellectual creativity, not just the procreative power that combines her to
a limited social function. But because her only means of exercising power is
through a credulous husband, Hedda envies Thea's rich intellectual partnership
with Lovborg, which produces as their creative "child" a bold treatise on the
future of society. Hedda's rivalry with Thea for power over Lovborg is a conflict
between Hedda's dominating intellect (symbolized by her pistols) and the
traditionally feminine power of beauty and love (symbolized by Thea's long
hair). Moreover, Hedda is the more independent or romantic of the two women.
Hedda has married Tesman apparently for no better reason than that "he
insisted with might and main on being allowed to support me" (Act II, 300).
Thea, on the other hand, has just walked out of her own marriage of convenience
on account of what now seems to her a higher vocation, for she has become
dedicated to the role of companion and support to Ejlert Lovborg; whereas
Hedda tells her, "I want, for once in my life, to have power over a human being's
fate." (Act II, 324)
Judge Brack is a friend of the family with whom Hedda shares a habit of
risque conversation; he is cold-bloodedly cynical, and his one purpose
throughout the play is to engineer an affair with Hedda. In her relationship with
Judge Brack, Hedda tastes a little of her past sexual power. Brack, unlike the
Tesman or Thea Elvsted, places a high value on power and makes it his business
to obtain as much of it as humanly possible. In Brack, Hedda finds her match
and enjoys the small power she holds over him. Their seemingly good-natured
teasing is fraught with double-entendre and bargaining over the terms of their
future relationship that the purpose a "triangular arrangement" is not abhorrent
to Hedda as long as she holds the power. However, as she tells the Judge much
later in the play, she is "heartily thankful you've no hold or power over [her]"
(Act III, 338) Though initially one might wonder why Hedda did not set her
sights on the Judge - a man at once well-established and powerful - it can be
reasoned that Brack lacks Tesman's malleability. That he is powerful and that
she might have had access to that power is incontestable, but she would have
held little power over the Judge, just as, though she had access to her father's
power, she had little power over him. Ironically, though Jorgen Tesman was easy
prey for Hedda - she easily gained power over him - she has no access to power
through him. Further, Brack reveals little interest in sharing, connubially or
otherwise, any portion of his power - his interests lie solely in "triangular
Ejlert Lovborg, however, is, again, a different matter. Hedda is drawn to
Lovborg not merely for the ideological, economic, and physical power that is his
birthright, but for the power of freedom he possesses as a function of his gender.
While not all of his gender chooses to step outside the boundaries of acceptable
society, any may step outside these boundaries and still remain socially
acceptable. For Hedda, this is the ultimate power and yet it is the most elusive to
her. While a woman might have access to male power through her father or
husband, this power of freedom, by its very nature, can never be extended to
her.* Thus, Hedda is fascinated by it and has made it her business to experience
this power vicariously, through Lovborg. Ibsen targets the sensational nature of
Hedda's desire in the following passage:
...She wants to lead a man's life. But then comes
hesitations - the inherited deep - rooted beliefs. . . One
marries Tesman but one occupies one's imagination
with Lovborg. One leans back in one's chair, closes
one eye, and pictures his adventures. ... She cannot
do it herself- cannot take part in the other one's goal
- so she shoots herself.
(Jacobs: 2002, 427)
Thus, Hedda is thrilled when, in her boredom and dissatisfaction, she
discovers that Lovborg will soon re-enter her life. Through Lovborg, Hedda,
prior to her marriage, had managed to realize vicariously all her male fantasies
of living a debauched life free from the constraints of bourgeois convention. To
Hedda, Lovborg has come to represent her male self; to Lovborg, Hedda has
* As Victoria Woodhull notes in her essay "Virtue: What It Is, and What It Is Not," "We cannot render
the terms libertine' and 'rake' as opprobrious as men have made 'mistress' and 'courtesan'... The
world enslaves our sex by the mere fear of an epithet; and as long as it can throw any vile term at us,
before which we cower, it can maintain our enslavement." (Schneir.1972, 147)
come to represent the missed chance - the seduction that never was. Thus, when
they face each other for the first time after Hedda's wild threats against
Lovborg, each is disappointed in the other. Hedda sees a man feminized through
reformed living and the maternal influence of a good woman; Lovborg sees a
woman who has thrown herself away in a mediocre marriage. When they discuss
their past relationship, we understand that even then the relationship was
operating on two different planes: while Lovborg believed he was seducing
Hedda, she was actually gaining a secret knowledge from him - a knowledge that
normally only a man would be party to:
Lovborg: Yes, Hedda; and when I used to confess to
you! Told you things about myself that no one else
knew in those days. Sat there and owned up to going
about whole days and nights blind drunk. Days and
nights on end. Oh, Hedda, what sort of power in you
was it - that forced me to confess things like that?
Hedda: Do you think it was some power in me?
Lovborg: Yes, how else can I account for it? And all
these - these questions you used to put to
Hedda: And that you understood perfectly well.
Lovborg: To think you could sit and ask questions
like that! Quite frankly.
Hedda: Indirectly, mind you.
Lovborg: Yes, but frankly, all the same. Cross-
question me about. ..about all that kind of thing.
Hedda: And to think that you could answer, Mr.
Lovborg: Yes, that's just what I can't understand,
looking back. But tell me now, Hedda, wasn't it love
that was at the bottom of that relationship? Wasn't it,
on your side, as though you wanted to purify and
absolve me, when I made you any confess? Wasn't it
Hedda: No, not quite.
Lovborg: What made you do it, then ?
Hedda: Do you find it so impossible to understand,
that a young girl, when there's an opportunity ... in
secret. . .
Hedda: That one should want to have a glimpse of a
world that. . .
Lovborg: that. . . ?
Hedda: That one isn 't allowed to know about?
Lovborg: So that was it, then?
Hedda: That. ..that as well, I rather think.
Lovborg: The bond of our common hunger for life.
But why couldn 't that have gone on, in my case?
Hedda: That was your own fault. (Act II, 316-317)
We understand from their conversation that while Lovborg believed Hedda was
in love with him and wanted, in fact, to reform him, Hedda wanted nothing of
the sort. Hedda's gratification in the relationship lay in the vicarious power she
experienced through his tales of debauchery. She has used the power of her
sexual attractiveness to access Lovborg's power. When Lovborg had tried to
consummate what he understood to be in large part of seduction, the horrified
Hedda threatened him with her father's pistols. The horror that Hedda
experienced was derived not from the impropriety of Lovborg's actions, but
rather from the fact that her good companion would suddenly reduce her to
female status - in effect, reduce her to the level of the women whose seductions
he had so readily conveyed to Hedda. While she threatened to shoot him with her
father's pistols, she couldn't follow through - her fear of scandal would not allow
it. And yet, she tells Lovborg of the events long past, "That wasn't my worst
piece of cowardice ... that night." (Act II, 318) Hedda's cowardice lies in her
longing for and denial of freedom - her masculine gender identity longs for the
power that comes with Lovborg's freedom and yet it will not allow her, as a
female, to experience it.
Further, Hedda has held power over Lovborg - this much is abundantly
clear from their conversation. Thus, when Thea tells Hedda that she has
succeeded in garnering "some kind of power" (Act I, 287) over Lovborg, Hedda
is exasperated. Her disappointment at Lovborg's having allowed himself to fall
under the power of so innocuous a creature as Thea - a woman who cannot truly
appreciate the possession of power - is profound. With Lovborg's
acknowledgment that Thea has indeed gained power over him through her
devotion to him, the play's action is reduced to a power struggle over the fate of
Thus, the meeting between the three is marked by Hedda's manipulation
and power strategies. Again we see Hedda at her most resourceful. When Thea,
with a hint of proprietorship, reiterates Lovborg's refusal to imbibe, Hedda
insists that he must partake. When he refuses her, the battle is on. Hedda will not
be refused and, after noting that "... I have no power over you at all?" (Act II,
320) She employs a new strategy: she suggests that a glance of derision has been
issued by Judge Brack at Lovborg's abstinence. Though Lovborg weakens
slightly, he again refuses. The ever resourceful Hedda then employs knowledge
of his and Thea's relationship imparted to her by Thea earlier in the play. The
suggestion is that Thea has been disloyal and Lovborg crumbles under the
knowledge that the woman upon whom he is morally dependent perceives him as
little more than a child. Hedda is triumphant as Lovborg toasts both Thea and
Hedda, drinks two glasses of punch, and departs for an evening of more
Berte, the Tesmans' servant is another selfless female who finds meaning
and satisfaction in her service to others. In Act I, it is disclosed that she has been
a loyal retainer in the Tesman family for years, and that with Jorgen marriage to
Hedda, she has come to the newlyweds' villa as servant and caretaker. Nothing is
disclosed of her private life, but she speaks of "all the blessed years" that she
spent with the Tesmans, suggesting that she has found fulfillment only in their
employ and that she has had neither husband nor children. Jorgen and Miss
Tesman both treat her with affection and respect. In addition, as if she were a
member of the family, they confide in her, something that Hedda cannot do. Her
overly-protective behavior towards Jorgen annoys Hedda, who wants to rid the
house of Berte and threatens to do so with a petty complaint about her
What happens to Hedda is that she wanted to keep away from herself:
reality spoils her expectations. The man she chooses to prove to the world and to
herself through his act that free choice does exist in the world and that we are
not slaves to our bodies and desires, fails to perform this deed. 'The beautiful
death' might well come from the general's vocabulary. A beautiful death that
turned its back on the vanities of mortal life was the highest value in masculine
power from Ancient Greece up to the late romantic period, and even beyond. If
Lovborg had been able to do it beautifully (Act IV, 355), as a man - even in the
eyes of Hedda's father-it might have given strength to Hedda to become a
woman. When Lovborg fails in this, she has to act herself. She has to die in the
place of someone. Hedda has fallen in love with the idea of masculine power and
action. As Caroline Mayerson suggests, her subsequent attempts at shaping
Lovborg's destiny into something romantic prove the symptom of this:
It is this tradition, however ignoble its carrier, to
which the pistols and Hedda (in her own mind)
belong, and it is, after all, the General only as
glimpsed through his daughter's ambitions and
conceptions of worth that is of real importance in the
play. These conceptions, as embodied in Hedda's
romantic ideal of manhood, may be synthesized from
the action and the dialogue. The aristocrat possesses
courage and self-control. He expresses himself
through direct and independent action... but the
recklessness is tempered by a disciplined will, by
means of which he "beautifully" orders both his own
actions and those of others on whom his power is
imposed. He shoots straight - to defend his life or his
honour, and to maintain his authority.
(Mayerson: 1965, 135-136)
This desire is expressed in her handling of her father's pistols. The pistols
have an immediate association with individual power and action, the ability to
dictate and control situations. Hedda's random firing of them at the beginning
of Act II illustrates that by this stage, she is not too concerned what shape this
power takes (i.e. whether it involves directly her own fate or someone else's); it is
the principle of having a participating role that is the issue. The pistols are
phallic symbols, signifiers of power in a patriarchal environment, which she is
denied in her role as an upper-class, female housewife in the public eye. Thanks
largely to her father's upbringing and the lack of a mother figure, Hedda is more
attracted by the masculine concepts existing in society, rather than by the
traditional female roles of 'wife' and 'mother'. For example, Brack occupies a
location of power Hedda simply cannot bear; constantly entering as he has done
from the back door, his presence represents potential social scandal. She tells
Brack, "So I am in your power, Mr. Brack. From now on, you have a hold over
me." (Act IV, 362) Hedda has not been raised to be psychologically content with
such an existence; therefore, she immediately adds, "In you power, all the same.
At the mercy of your will and demands. And so a slave! A slave! No! That
thought I cannot tolerate. Never!" (Act IV, 362) Ibsen presents a catalogue of
social and psychological factors that all contribute towards Hedda's death.
In seeking power over the people around her, she forgets her motherhood.
For her, a future in the Tesman household is psychologically unattainable: Thea
and Tesman have moved out of her sphere of influence, and the focus on
Lovborg's work seems to re-emphasize she will not have any significant role to
play in future affairs. Married to a man to whom she does not relate, pregnant
with a child she does not want. Hedda's life becomes the antithesis to her father's
role, and complete anathema to "General Gabler's daughter" (Act I, 265). Hedda
struggles violently against the conventional wife-mother role, a role she does not
want but is mortally afraid to reject. She suffers most from being victimized by
motherhood. She is unable to face or to escape the suffocating reality of marriage
and motherhood. She tries her best to resume courage but through cowardice.
That surely is as big a factor in her self-destruction as is her fear of being held
sexual hostage to the sinister Judge Brack, who threatens to expose her to
scandal, of which she is at least equally terrified.
Concerning motherhood, the other female characters in Hedda Gabler,
even those unseen, have one thing in common with Hedda. They are women who
have either failed to meet the male ideal of woman as wife-mother or have
rejected it, as Hedda. They also differ from Hedda in a vitally significant way:
they have made peace with themselves. And therein they represent some of the
limited alternatives to what society at large viewed as a woman's primary goal —
marriage and motherhood. George Tesman's two aunts are maiden aunts; Thea
Elvsted has fled a brutal and loveless marriage, and Berta, having given her life
over to service, remains, presumably, unattached outside the Tesman family.
Two of the unseen female characters, Aunt Rina and Mademoiselle Diana, are
excellent examples of offstage characters whose presence is felt but never seen.
The one is George Tesman's dying aunt; the other, "a mighty huntress of men,"
is a lady of pleasure for those who can afford her.
Ibsen employs a reversal of traditional gender roles within Hedda and
Jorgen Tesman's marriage to emphasize Hedda's masculine and power traits to
ascertain her social identity and entity. Hedda displays no emotion or affection
towards her husband Jorgen. This appearance of indifference is a quality that is
usually common to men:
Tesman: My old morning shoes. My slippers-
look!...! missed them dreadfully. Now you should see
Hedda: No thanks, it really doesn 't interest me.
(Act I, 273)
In another gender role reversal, Hedda displays a financial awareness,
which her husband, Jorgen does not posses. Throughout a long conversation in
Act I, Brack corresponds with Jorgen about his honeymoon travels, he
corresponds with Hedda concerning the financial matters. This is a role that is
usually reserved for men. Hedda does not only display traits, which are
definitively masculine, or feminine, she also objects to and often resists the
conventions established for her gender by society. Hedda's unsuitability for her
domestic role is also shown by her impatience and equivocation at any reference
to her pregnancy as a reminder of her gender and weakness; therefore she
rejects the idea of motherhood, and of domestic tranquility.
Tesman: Have you noticed how plump [Hedda's]
grown, and how well she is? How much she's filled
out on our travels?
Hedda: Oh, be quiet! (Act I, 275)
Hedda is reminded not only of her feminine role of mother and nurturer here,
but also as wife and appendage to Tesman. In fact, Hedda has the personality of
a leader and is utterly unsuited to the role of suburban housewife.
Hedda had made the mistake of believing that her husband, in his
maleness, values power as much as she does, when in fact, he values it not at all.
This much she has learned on her tedious honeymoon. Furthermore, upon
arriving home, they learn that the position promised is in jeopardy, their
finances are precarious, and there is little hope of enjoying a large social life or
even purchasing a new riding horse. She is further disappointed in her vague
hopes of a future political career for Tesman:
Hedda: .../ very often wonder... whether I could get
my husband to go into politics.
Brack (laughing): Tesman! Oh, come now! Things
like politics aren't a bit - they're not at all his line of
Hedda: Then you think, do you, it would be absolutely
impossible for him to get into the Government?
Brack:... to do that he'd need to be a fairly rich man
in the first place.
Hedda (getting up impatiently): Yes. There we have it.
It's this middle-class world that I have got into,
(crossing the stage) It's that that makes life so
wretched! So absolutely ludicrous! Because that's
what it is. (Act II, 306)
She has access to none of the male power - political, financial, social, or
otherwise - she had envisioned. The only power she has is over an effeminate
man she can barely tolerate - a man who has little interest in the male power she
Comparing Nora in A Doll's House and Hedda Gabler, one may find that
they are generally two different female characters created by the same
playwright. Hedda lives through others by manipulation. Hedda is a coward; she
is afraid of taking charge of her life and making something of herself. Since she
feels a lack of control over her life, she tries and pretends to control others. She is
unhappy because she has actually no control and strives to make everyone else
unhappy. Ibsen wrote many plays that challenged Victorian notions of women,
sometimes creating characters in the form of the "New Woman," a term used in
the press of the day to describe the woman who dared to challenge traditional
behavior of women by becoming authoritative, unhappy with their conventional
live, and conflicted between a desire of being "womanly" and yet live outside the
boundaries of that definition of the time. Like many "New Woman" characters,
Hedda commits suicide at the end because there is no place for her in society: if
she conforms she is unhappy, and if she rebels she gives up love and respect of
others. She was a misfit for her time. Unlike Nora in A Doll's House, who starts
out as the quiet, dutiful wife, and is eventually driven to rebellion by the
bourgeois conventionality of her husband, Hedda cannot leave quietly because
there is nothing quiet or gentle about this character from beginning to end. Nora
decided to face life and to find her entity and identity as a female; whereas
Hedda chooses the radical freedom of death rather than a mediocre existence
under the control of others. Like A Doll's House, Hedda Gabler ends with a bang.
Suddenly abandoning her husband and children, Nora slams the front door as
she strikes out on her own. But the loud noise in Hedda Gabler is a gunshot.
To conclude, the mothers and wives who are presented in most of Ibsen's
plays are in fact powerless females in the grip of powerful males. Hedda Gabler
is a different woman, a woman who has felt, from as far back as she can
remember, that being female is worthless. She has been raised in a home with an
authoritative, domineering father and an absent mother; a home where the
ruling principle was power, rather than love. She is the final negative product of
the domination / submission model of marriage - the woman whose very gender
makes her hate herself. She does not kill herself only, but she also kills her mind:
the source of her dissatisfaction, the source of her understanding of her
powerlessness. Hedda has learned to value only power, but has come to finally
and absolutely understand that she will never possess it.
Social Diseases and Victims in the Ghosts: Syphilis and Deception
In late nineteenth century Europe, syphilis was seen as a scourge upon
society. It evoked the same hysteria, stereotyping and paranoia that the AIDS
epidemic did a century later. The infected were social outcasts and considered
responsible for their own infection. The main social criticism in the Ghosts (1881)
focuses on syphilis and deception in society through a symbolic - realistic level.
People may socially inherit deception as they physically inherent syphilis with
same destructive effects.
Henrik Ibsen was not the first dramatist who used syphilis as a theme for
his dramatic purposes, referring to its serious effects such as damage to the
nervous system, heart, or brain. There are references to this disease in William
Shakespeare's play Measure for Measure, particularly in a number of early
passages spoken by the character Lucio, whose name, suggesting light and truth,
is meant to indicate that he is to be taken seriously. For example Lucio says "...
thy bones are hollow" (Act I, Sc. II,); this is a reference to the fragility of bones
caused by the use of mercury which was then widely used to treat syphilis.
Within the same scene, Claudio tells Lucio:
Like rats that raven down their proper bane,
A thirsty evil, and when we drink, we die,
(Act I, Sc. II,)
These lines refer with the characteristic pregnant brevity of the dramatist in his
later years to the fact that syphilis is the inevitable accompaniment of the
expression of the desire that is our essential nature.
Disease is a prominent motif in late nineteenth century European
literature. A number of critics have prominently interpreted characters as
diverse as the protagonist of Oscar Wilde's The Picture of Dorian Gray (1890),
the troglodytic alter-ego in Robert Louis Stevenson's The Strange Case of Dr.
Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1886) and even the vampiric victims of Bram Stoker's
Dracula (1897) as painted in terms of syphilitic deformity and regression. Most
explicitly, Sarah Grand's The Heavenly Twins (1893) has one of its female
protagonists actively seek to kill her syphilitic son; whereas G. Wilson Knight
observes that the heritage of guilt in Ghosts "is like the curse on the house of
Atreus in the Oresteia." (Knight: 1965, 51) Pre-dating all of these is Ibsen's
Ghosts was a logical sequel to A Doll's House, and when Ghosts was
published two years later in 1881, Ibsen was denounced as architect of the
greatest scandal of modern times. In Ghosts, the society portrayed enforces
stereotypes to such a degree that all individuality is suppressed and characters
are forced to conform to stereotypes or be shunned and deemed unacceptable. In
such a society where deceit is encouraged rather than truth and where one's
"duty" is to be adhered to despite all underlying circumstances, only such deceit
and dishonesty can prevail while those who try to do the right thing struggle to
conform to impossible standards.
Oswald returns home after decades of living in Paris. He is a painter, and
in his return, he reveals he is sick and needs caring. Mrs. Alving, his mother, is
willing to do so, and she tells him stories about his father, Captain Alving, a hero
of his town. In fact, Mrs. Alving, with the help of Mr. Pastor Manders, has
established an orphan asylum (an orphanage) to memorialize his death, and it is
schedule to be dedicated the following day. She does not want anyone to doubt
that he was a good and honorable man. At the same time, she is a free-thinking
woman and feels compelled to tell her son the truth about his father. Mr.
Manders soon discovers that Captain Alving was anything but a saint. Mrs.
Alving reveals that her husband's reputation was all her doing, hiding the
Captain's drunken state, his laziness and being a ladies' man. He even had
another child (with another woman), Regina, who is now caretaker of the Alving
Oswald and Regina fall in love. Regina does not know he is ill, but Oswald
thinks that Regina is the only woman who can heal him from his strange wounds
made in Paris (almost certainly, a syphilitic inheritance from his father the
Captain). Mrs. Alving and Manders are forced to tell them both the truth:
Regina is angry at the revelation, feeling she should have been educated and
raised as Alving's daughter and not a servant. Regina learns of Oswald's illness
and is relieved she did not marry him as first intended. She flees along with her
supposed father Engstrand, also an employee of the Alvings .
The play ends shortly after Oswald has elicited a promise from his mother
to administer a deadly dose of morphine to him when the disease overtakes his
mind. She refuses at first, horrified, but then she realizes that helping her son to
pass away would be an act of mercy. The closing scene depicts Mrs. Alving in the
throes of her anguished decision, while her son, suddenly reduced to a catatonic
state, mutters repeatedly, "The sun, the sun." (Act III, 102) We do not know
whether Mrs. Alving will relieve her son's misery or whether she will let him
continue to live in this literally mindless state.
Unfortunately, Ghosts as an English word does not accurately explain the
Norwegian title of the play, which means 'Those-Who-Walk-Again'.
Unquestionably, the latter is profoundly relevant to the meaning of the play.
Nonetheless, the title refers to all ideas, characters, beliefs and outdated piety we
have inherited from the past and believed in them without scrutiny. This
heritage must be re-examined in the light of each individual's experience; if not
they will affect our lives, children and contour our future as well. Mrs. Alving's
speech on "ghosts," in the second act, establishes the play's key metaphor. She
I'm haunted by ghosts. When I heard Regina and Oswald
out there, it was just as if there were ghosts before my very
eyes.... it's not only the things that we've inherited from
our fathers and mothers that live on in us, but all sorts of
old dead ideas and old dead beliefs, and things of the sort.
They're not actually alive in us, but they're rooted there all
the same, and we can 't rid ourselves of them. I've only to
pick up a newspaper, and when I read it I seem to see
ghosts gliding between the lines. I should think there must
be ghosts all over the country - as countless as grains of
sand. And we are, all of us, so pitifully afraid of the light.
(Act II, 61)
The "ghosts" of duty and public opinion come to dominate and ruin generations
of lives. Mrs. Alving feels that all people are haunted not only by their
inheritances from specific people, but by general superstitions that exist within a
community. The idea of filial piety, or duty to family members above all else, is
such a ghost. Having himself suffered all his life under the conservatism of
Norwegian provincialism, Ibsen personally found how such a society destroys the
"joy of life" in its creative intellects leaving bitterness and frustration. Mrs.
Alving makes the central themes of Ghosts explicit in this speech where she
confronts Manders with the concept.
Concerning symbolic realism, syphilis and deception are working
together in the text. They technically support each other to generate the final
understanding of the social criticism that Ibsen aims at. The analogy between
syphilis as an inherited disease and deception as a social disease is obvious in the
sense that deception is like peeling away layers of onionskin. One is left with only
a sad remnant of transparent chops by the end. The illness would seem to prove
Mrs. Alving's theory that her son is actually haunted by his father. The most
thematic structure of the play is built on the concept of deception, which is
presented in Mrs. Alving marriage, the orphanage, Pastor Manders - Mrs.
Alving relationship, Oswald -Regina relationship, and Regina - Alvings
Mrs. Alving's sin is that she is very careful to preserve her husband's
public reputation through deception and to conserve her filial piety since she has
been raised as a dutiful girl to become a dutiful wife and mother. To Ibsen, both
cases are regarded as superstitions or ghosts that exist within a society. She
refers to her duty and role as a mother to Oswald a few times in the text but
mostly she talks about the guilt of sending him away and how she missed him
because she was trying to keep the truth from him. She did not want him tainted
with his father's sins. She tells Pastor Manders, "Yes, thanks to my regard for
duty, I've been lying to my boy for years on end. What a coward - what a
coward I've been!" (Act II, 59) Nevertheless, Mrs. Alving represents the central
character that stands amidst deception in the play. The fact that she knows her
husband's immoral life and she reluctantly matches him in his drinking sessions
shows that she is a woman of deception. Mrs. Alving is affected by the class
system in a different way from Engstrand. Deceit for her is sprung not from the
ambition of social climbing, but for the purpose of preserving the good - though
undeserved - reputation of the Alving family. Reputation for the upper and
middle classes was a serious business. Unlike today, when a divorce would be
socially accepted, people involved in such scandals were often shunned by their
peers. Pastor Manders himself agrees with the cover-up of Captain Alving's
affair. For a religious man to condone such a colossal and complicated lie to the
rest of the world shows how large the issue of reputation was.
Mrs. Alving often resents the Pastor, especially when he constantly
accuses her of gross sins of familial betrayal and personal failure. At the same
time, she condescends to him, humouring his gullibility. When Engstrand
convinces the Pastor that his marriage was arranged and carried out in the most
moral way possible, Mrs. Alving sees through the lies but does not bother to
enlighten the Pastor. Instead, she is amused by his naive acceptance of the story.
Twenty - eight years ago, when she fled her husband, she went to the Pastor,
offering herself up to him. The Pastor dutifully sent her home to her husband: "I
had the necessary strength of mind to dissuade you from your outrageous plan;
and that it was vouchsafed to me to lead you back to the path of duty - and home
to your rightful husband." (Act I, 47 She was crushed, and has since fulfilled her
"duty" to the utmost. Obviously, his rejection had a huge impact on her. The two
now agree that they do not understand each other.
During the course of the play, Mrs. Alving discloses to Pastor Manders
the true nature of her marriage after she returned home. For the sake of
appearance, she convinced her husband to move to the country, where his
dishonest ways might be concealed, and she sent her son Oswald to boarding
school so that he would never learn the truth about his father's dissolute life. "I
didn't want Oswald, my own son, to inherent anything whatever from his father"
(Act I, 52). Helene Alving sacrificed herself by partaking of the drinking sessions
with Alving, in the privacy of their home, and struggling with his violence as she
nightly put him to bed.
To keep him at home in the evenings - and at night -
I've had to force myself to join in his secret drinking
bouts up in his room. I've had to sit alone with him -
clinking glasses and drinking with him, and listening
to his lewd stupid talk. I've had to fight with him,
physically, to get him to go to bed.
(Act I, 51)
All the while, she took over the family business, made charitable
donations in her husband's name, and wrote to her son of his father's
philanthropic deeds. Mrs. Alving has even been able to hide the captain's
indiscretion of impregnating the housemaid, who is sent away with a bundle of
money and whose daughter, Regina, the product of his indiscretion now serves as
the maid for Mrs. Alving.
The fact that she leaves her husband to go seek the man that she really
loves shows a great tendency of unfaithfulness and deceit. Ibsen wants to show
that this situation is worse than Nora's in that in the end Mrs. Alving was unable
to save her son from his father's sins and everything from the past just comes
back to haunt her. Had she made a different choice before she got married, her
life might have turned out alright, but she let her mother take her into marriage
when she did not know, much less love, the Captain. She also comes to some
amazing conclusions about life as a woman and what is considered right and
wrong according to the Pastor. Once again, Ibsen uses this theme of deception to
make the audience think about social norms and their consequences to real life
people. He tries to shed light on such women's issues to bring about change.
Another phase of deception is Oswald who is living under the influence of
his dead father, a reminder of Captain Alving to the world. The boy's own
memories of his father were confined to one incident in his childhood when his
father had taken him on his knee and encouraged him to smoke a large
meerschaum pipe. Oswald remembered this episode, and upon his return home,
he took a certain pride in lighting up his father's old pipe and parading in front
of his mother and Pastor Manders. Pastor Manders describes his first meeting
with Oswald as "like seeing his father in the flesh." (Act I, 40) He goes further to
say that Oswald has "inherited a worthy name from an industrious man", (Act I,
41) and that it should be an "inspiration" to him. Not only does this "ghost"
influence the way Oswald behaves, as he tries to be worthy of the "beautiful
illusion" (Act II, 60) he holds of his father, but it also influences the way people
see him. Actually, Captain Alving was an alcoholic and led a dissolute life; this
wrack of syphilis is his own product that Mrs. Alving tries to hide.
Ibsen often moves from the realistic presentation to the symbolic and vice
versa. Mrs. Alving tried to keep her husband's "irregularities" secret, to protect
Oswald, who she feared would be poisoned by the unwholesome atmosphere in
the Alving home. The Orphanage is built, not only to "refute all the rumours and
dispel any doubts" (Act I, 52), but also make sure that Oswald would not
"inherit anything whatever from his father." (Act I, 52) This last aim is fruitless.
Although Oswald does not inherit money from his father, he inherits aspects of
his personality. Oswald inherits his father's "joy of living". He shows signs of
drunkenness, as he drinks liquor to "keep the damp out." (Act II, 70)
However, Oswald inherits something far worse, something from which his
mother, for all her "sacrifice", could not protect him. Through Captain Alving's
"dissolute life", Oswald has inherited congenital syphilis. He has "been riddled
from birth". The audience, along with Oswald, is reminded, "the sins of the
fathers are revisited on the children." (Act II, 74) The "ghosts" of the past cannot
be escaped. Like his father, Oswald will die of syphilis. This fear consumes him,
and is only abated when his mother promises to give him "a helping hand" to
end the torment if he experiences another attack.
Regina's birth is another manifestation of social deception in the play. She
is an illegitimate daughter of Johanna and Captain Alving but she is believed to
be the daughter of Jacob Engstrand, the carpenter who is working at the
Orphanage. She is now Mrs. Alving's maidservant. Her action shows that she
uses many masks to achieve her aims. She has a hostile relationship with Jacob
Engstrand and does not have much respect for him.
Regina is quite attractive and flirts with Pastor Manders. Oswald
becomes attracted to Regina and in her he sees a joy that he does not have. He
tells his mother that she is his own salvation. (Act II, 80) Regina wants to marry
Oswald and travel to Paris and some of her dialogues include French words to
show her intention of being with Oswald. Eventually, Regina finds out that
Oswald is in fact her half-brother and that Engstrand is not her father but
instead, it was Mr. Alving. Upon finding out about Oswald's illness, she loses
interest in marrying him and decides to go away with Pastor Manders.
Regina is fundamentally a 'social climber'. She preserves a facade in front
of the 'higher class' people in society but in front of her father she is
condescending and patronising because she does not agree with his ideals. The
short crucial opening sentences of the play show that she is commanding her
father, who is actually in the same class as her, older than her, and is a man,
which implies that she believes herself superior to him. She has ideas above her
position and views herself as part of the upper class. She commands her father
by saying, "What do you want? Stay where you are, you're dripping wet." (Act I,
21) Furthermore, she is speaking French with her father because it is a more
sophisticated language which makes her seems as if she fitted in with the upper
classes. It also shows how much more intelligent she thinks she is than her father,
"Alright, alright, but get along now. I'm not going to stand here and have a
rendezvous with you." (Act I, 22) She believes she is of a higher class than her
father because she has been brought up by Mrs. Alving when she says, "What
me! When I've been brought up by a lady like Mrs. Alving?" (Act I, 23) Then
the sudden change from the harsh tone used with her father to the pleasant tone
with Manders shows her attempts to maintain a certain appearance around
higher class people, so she will fit in. "Why, good morning, Pastor. Is the
streamer in already?" (Act I, 27)
Her open flirting with the Pastor by drawing attention to her body reveals
her personality further and the audience may be disgusted by her speech as it is
specifically directed to a holy figure.
Paster Manders: Excellent, thank you. [Looking at
her] Do you know, Miss Engstrad, I really do believe
you 've grown since I saw you last!
Regina: Do you think so, Pastor? Madam says I've
filled out, too. (Act I, 28-29)
It is obvious that Regina is tempting the Pastor because she wants to raise her
status in society since the Pastor is a respected and influential member of the
community. We can see that she is greedy and deceptive because later on we see
that she is attracted to Oswald as well.
Again, Regina reveals her deceptive nature when she agrees to take
advantage of her 'youth' when the rest of her schemes and plans have failed, the
matter she has refused at the start of the play. She tells Mrs. Alving, "A poor
girl's got to make the best of her youth, or before she knows it she'll be left out in
the cold. I've got the joy of living in me, too, Madam." (Act III, 94) The last
statement said by Regina reveals her true colours here. "Pooh! Adieu." (Act III,
95) It shows just how much affection she really has for Mrs. Alving and Oswald.
The fake mask of caring that she had put on comes off and the audience realizes
just how untamed she really is. Ibsen shows this different side of Regina to
illustrate that individuals try to mask their true intentions in order to get what
Pastor Manders is a local priest from the nearby town. He often lectures
others about morality and religion. Sometimes, his financial dealings regarding
the orphanage seem suspect, and he is quick to bend to public opinion. He
believes that Mrs. Alving should not have abandoned her husband and should
not have sent her son into the world at such an early age. He is easily shocked.
Pastor Manders is overwhelmingly associated to the main symbol of deception in
the play. He has supervised the official business of constructing the orphanage
and who will dedicate it the following day; the orphanage which Mrs. Alving
financially supports in the tenth anniversary of her husband's death, Captain
Alving. Mrs. Alving plans to raise this one great memorial to him so that she will
not have to ever again speak of him. She wants to avoid the terrible truth: that
he was a cheating, immoral philanderer whose public reputation was a sham.
With the dedication of the orphanage, built with the exact sum that
Captain Alving possessed when she married him, Mrs. Alving believes that she is
finally able to rid herself of the burden under which she has lived all these years;
the orphanage will be the final act of atonement; the ghosts of the marriage will
be put to rest. Later, the orphanage will burn to the ground (a result of
carelessness with a candle).
A deception within deception occurs with Pastor Manders when
Engstrand and the Pastor return to the house, announcing that the orphanage is
lost to the flames. Engstrand convinces the Pastor that there will be a public
scandal, blaming the Pastor for carelessly letting the prayer candles start the
fire. He blackmails the Pastor into funding his sailor establishment, convincing
the Pastor that it will be dedicated to the reform of sailors.
Jakob Engstrand is an alcoholic carpenter with a deformed leg; he
married Johanna when she was pregnant with Captain Alving's child. The
daughter was Regina. At the start of the play, he is working on the orphan
asylum meant to memorialize Captain Alving. He wants to use the money he is
saving to open an "establishment" for sailors. When speaking to Pastor
Manders, whom the hypocritical Jakob always tries to please, he describes the
establishment as a place to reform sailors. But when he describes it to Regina, it
sounds like a high-class saloon.
In conclusion, the ghosts of the past rise to choke Mrs. Alving, the
hypocritical Pastor Manders, and even the innocent victims of their parents'
sins. Ibsen is said to have written Mrs. Alving with the idea of what would have
happened if Nora had returned home instead of leaving her husband and
children. The fact that Mrs. Alving takes charge of the family, the finances, the
business, and even goes so far as to send her son away shows that she is rebelling
against what society expects of her. She has her own ideas of right and wrong but
she still worries about society at large and her reputation as well as that of her
family. The fact that she left her husband to go seek the man that she really loved
shows great strength and character as well as her rebellion. Because she was
turned away, she went home and tried to make the best of a bad situation. After
all, she had no alternatives or any other place to go. Ibsen wants to show that this
situation is worse than Nora's in that in the end Mrs. Alving was unable to save
her son from his father's sins and everything from her past just came back to
haunt her. Had she made a different choice before she got married, her life might
have turned out alright, but she let her mother take her into marriage when she
didn't know, much less love, the Captain. She also comes to some pretty amazing
conclusions about life as a woman and what is considered right and wrong
according to the Pastor. She reads material with different point of view and takes
the position that she will come to her own conclusions about what she thinks
concerning issues of importance. Once again, Ibsen uses his story and dialogue to
make the audience think about social norms and their consequences to real life
people and is trying to bring women's issues to the forefront in order to bring
about change. He dealt with the consequences of such relationships in his life and
saw how wrong this arrangement was as well as the pain and suffering that was
brought on by these societal norms.
Henrik Ibsen's Socio-political Ideals: Personal Codes versus
Social I Political Codes in A Public Enemy
There is at least one common trait in the dramatic works of Ibsen, Shaw
and Brecht as far as the political issues and themes are concerned. This common
trait lurks in the fact that the political affairs and circumstances in their plays
are products of the social environment and vice versa. In other words, they
reflect and generate each other dynamically. The role of the individual is to face
these issues, to challenge them and to overcome them. This dialectical role in
facing and challenging such conditions may make the individual a victim of
external and uncontrollable powers that lead him either to destruction or to find
a synthesis as a solution for these volatile socio-political problems. Mostly such
syntheses are either formulated in the spectators' minds or realized by the
protagonists themselves within the text.
As a playwright, Ibsen expressed his thoughts and personal views on
politics, ideals, war, cowardice, art and culture, love and dislikes. One can simply
distill a conclusion that he turned to individualism which is a task of the
courageous artist to change the minds of people and the prevailed societal norms
in a radical way, and not the politicians with their compromises. Ibsen had a
very uneasy relationship to politicians and party politics. Always keenly
interested in politics, Ibsen was not at any time in regular standing with a
political party. Many Marxist writers, like Georgi Pekhanov, describe Henrik
Ibsen as a petty bourgeois whose way of thinking is apolitical, and he is entirely
indifferent to politics. Nonetheless, A Public Enemy may be regarded as the
typical play where Ibsen's socio-political and other relevant issues are most in
A Public Enemy is a masterpiece conceived in the heat of battle of
democratic transition in Europe. It was published in 1882. There were
parliamentary elections in Norway that year. It was one of the most important
election years in Norwegian history - if not the most important. The liberals'
plan was to pack the impeachment tribunal. The upcoming impeachment trial
was a major cause of the first Norwegian parliamentary government at the end
of June in 1884. Therefore, 1882 was an important year in the democratic
The plot of A Public Enemy might be based on two real incidents, which
had been reported to Henrik Ibsen. The first happened when a German doctor
announced that the spa of his town was contaminated by cholera. Consequently,
the tourists were afraid of visiting the town. The townsfolk stoned the doctor's
house and he had to leave the town. A similar incident occurred in Norway of a
chemist who had accused the Christiana Steam Kitchens of neglecting the poor.
When he tried to read his written allegation in a public meeting, the chairman
prevented him from speaking and the audience forced him to withdraw, very
much as Dr. Stockmann does in the play.
Generally speaking, there are two apparently conflicting values in Ibsen's
A Public Enemy. Personal ideals are expedient for the benefit of an individual;
whereas social/political ideals support the agency of the whole community. To
create tension and conflict within the drama out of these two oppositional forces,
Ibsen constructs a border between personal codes and social/political codes.
Accordingly, terms like democracy and individual freedom may be equivoques
within such a context. Dr. Stockman's dilemma emerges from his being an
idealist, else he would know that in a democratic environment, the individual has
the right to express his own opinion and he has the freedom to choose the lawful
way to do so. Nevertheless, when democracy defies the authority through the
individuals, it is then understood as a source of jeopardy and should be
eradicated. What threatens the authority, which is elected by the majority,
threatens the whole society; and any body that stands against this dogma is
regarded as a public enemy.
The protagonist is Doctor Tomas Stockmann who begins an apolitical
mission, which will lead him to an inevitable and tempestuous political challenge
to authority. He has just discovered that a bathing complex that is essential to
the town's economy is seriously polluted. The waters of the Baths are
contaminated by a leak from a nearby tannery. He alerts several members of the
community and receives generous support and thanks for making this discovery
in time to save the town. The next day his brother, Peter Stockmann the town
Mayor and the antagonist, tells him he has to retract his statement to the town to
repair the Baths it would cost too much money for the town; the Mayor is not
convinced by the doctors findings. They have a huge argument, but the Doctor
hopes that the newspaper will support him. However, the Mayor convinces the
newspaper to oppose him. Soon after the doctor holds a town meeting to state his
case, the Mayor and Aslaksen, the newspaper printer, try to keep him from
speaking. The doctor begins a long lecture in which he attacks the foundations of
the town and the tyranny of the majority. The people find his speech offensive
and revolt against the doctor. The next morning the doctor's house is vandalized
and all the people who supported him earlier now oppose him.
Finally, Dr. Stockmann is fired as doctor for the local bath. There is a
campaign for people not to use him as a personal doctor. No one dares to have
anything to do with the public enemy, not even the "independent" and wealthy
employer of ship captain Horster who obtained permission to use the hall where
the meeting was held. He is deprived of his captaincy on the ship on which he
planned to take Dr. Stockmann and his family to America. Dr. Stockmann 's
landlord will not permit him to remain in his residence. His daughter, Petra, is
fired as a schoolteacher. The doctor's two boys reveal that the other children at
school had fought them and, because of that, the headmaster suggested they stay
home for a few days. The doctor reminds his wife of his decision to emigrate,
then notices the mob has torn his best trousers: "you should never wear your
best trousers when you go to fight for truth and freedom." (Act V, 198) Dr.
Stockmann remains steadfast. Later, he changes his mind, he tells his wife and
daughter they are not going to leave town but will hold their ground and look for
a house. "Yes, here. This is the battlefield - here's where the fight is, and here's
where I shall triumph." (Act V, 215) He adds that he will continue treating the
poor, who cannot pay, but will "preach to them in season and out of season" (Act
V, 216)). Replying his wife, Dr. Stockmann sums up his and Ibsen's purpose in
That's utter nonsense, Katrina. Do you want me to be
rooted in the field by public opinion and the solid
majority, and all the rest of that devil's work? No
thank you, my dear. You see, what I want to do is
quite simple and straightforward: I just want to knock
it into these mongrels' heads that the liberals are the
craftiest enemies a free man has - that party
programmes simply wiring the necks of any promising
young truth- that expediency turns justice and
morality upside down, till life here just isn 't worth
living. (Act V, 216)
Good government requires nobility of spirit, Ibsen thought, and good
education was required to develop noble and free people. At the end of the play,
Dr. Stockmann decides to begin a school for the street boys with the help of
Petra. The doctor declares that the children will not set foot in that school again,
that he will teach them "... in the room where they called a public enemy." (Act
V, 218). He asks his two sons if they know any "mongrel" children because
evidently he would never get children of the Home Owner's Council to attend. "I
am going to try an experiment on some mongrels ... there may be some excellent
material among them" (Act V, 218). They are to be brought up as free and noble
men, who will chase away the conformists of the older generation when they
grow up. This statement implies that amongst the bourgeois he had found no
interesting minds that perhaps he might find some amongst the proletariat. This
is Dr. Stockmann's final decision: to stay in the town to defy authority. His
family is supportive and he says, "that the strongest man in the world is the man
who stands most alone." (Act V, 219)
The interplay between the social and the personal codes causes tension
between Tomas and Peter Stockmann which provides much of the interest in the
play. The Mayor tells his brother to act in a more socially based manner, but this
is why Dr Stockmann is concerned about the pollution from the Baths. Dr
Stockmann does not understand how the public will react to his findings. Despite
his naivety and obsession with his personal ethics, the Doctor is acting as he does
because of his concern for the public; he does not want them to be harmed by the
pollutants in the baths. Concerning his personal ideals, truth is important to the
Doctor because delivering an untruth will harm the public more than the loss of
tourist money while the Baths are under repair. Dr Stockmann is therefore
acting in a manner that supports his personal beliefs while benefiting the health
of the public. His personal ethics have to face and challenge the social/political
power out of which the dramatic dilemma and conflict emerge. When he is asked
to withdrew his article since the paper will not print it, he replies:
Dr. Stockmann: You dare not? What nonsense!
You're the editor, I should have thought the editor
controlled the paper!
Aslaksen: No, Doctor, it's the readers who do that.
The Mayor: Fortunately, yes.
Aslaksen: It's public opinion - the enlightened
majority, the householders and the like... they 're the
ones who control the paper.
Dr Stockmann: And I have all these forces against
me? (Act III, 170-171)
In fact, it is not readers, but capital interests, which put pressure on the
newspaper. Editor Hovstad of The Courier wants to stand up for the right
opinions, but unfortunately the creditors of the paper do not agree, and they
have power to stop it.
Psychologically speaking, the social/political code might be compared
with Freud's concept of the "superego" or society, while individualism with his
concept of the "id" or intrinsic human nature or truth. What is interesting,
however, is Ibsen's forcing the social/political code to come into direct conflict
with the latter. In Act I, Peter Stockmann reproaches his brother for following
ethics based on individual convictions.
Peter Stockmann: You have an ingrained tendency to
go your own way, whatever the circumstances- and in
a well-ordered community that is almost as
reprehensible. The individual must subordinate
himself to Society as a whole - or rather, to those
authorities whose duty it is to watch over the welfare
(Act 1, 113-114)
The Mayor makes it obvious that he will not endure ethical codes that
demoralize the power of the hegemony, of which he is the leader. He implies that
a "well ordered community" cannot exist unless "the individual" (he refers to his
brother, Dr Stockmann) is prepared to be submissive to the "authority" of the
governing body. Another connotation of the Mayor's dialogue is that individual
rights, as opposed to those of the governing body, do not have the care of the
community's welfare as first priority. (Act I, 114) It is here that Ibsen, through
the character of Peter Stockmann, the Mayor constructs a border between the
personal and social/political, to introduce conflict between the Mayor and his
brother. The playwright induces us to believe the ethical codes of the two
brothers are universally incompatible and therefore, Dr Stockmann's longing to
publish the truth about the Baths, will run in opposition to the Mayor's wishes;
thus creating a perceived borderland of conflict.
In Act II, Ibsen efficiently portrays a confrontation between personal and
social/political issues. Mayor Stockmann arrives at his brother's home to discuss
the report and again shows that he has no concern whatsoever for the truth, but
only for propriety. He is concerned that his brother might bring the report to the
attention of the spa's board of directors. The doctor's outlook changes when his
brother informs him about the incredible cost that the proposed changes would
require. Because of the cost, the Mayor either refuses to comprehend, or is
simply in denial about, the seriousness of the problem.
Dr. Stockmann: No right...!
The Mayor: Not as a member of the staff. As a
private individual, naturally, it's different matter; but
as a minor official of the Baths, you have no right to
express any opinion which conflicts with that of your
Dr. Stockmann: This is too much! I'm a doctor - a
man of science. . .Am I to have no right to -
The Mayor: The point at issue is not a purely
scientific one; it is a complex question, with both
technical and economic aspects.
Dr. Stockmann: As far as I'm concerned, it can be
anything it damn well likes; but I mean to be free to
speak my mind on any subject on earth.
The Mayor: As you please- so long as it does not
concern the Baths. That we forbid.
Dr Stockmann : You forbid. .. You? A pack of-
The Mayor: I forbid it! I, you senior director. And
when I forbid anything, you must obey.
(Act II, 144-145)
The use of the word "forbid" implies that the Mayor has the authority to
veto any expression by the doctor that he has not authorized. Declaring himself
as "your chief also constructs a false position of superiority for the Mayor and
"have to obey" infers that the doctor's position is untenable and obeying his
brother's declaration is the universally correct way to act. This interplay again
creates more tension because Dr Stockmann refuses to kowtow to the politically
based wishes of his brother. The tension affects the doctor when he is shouting at
the Mayor in rage, "You forbid..! You! A pack of — ." In context, this is a
dramatic outburst by Dr Stockmann because prior to this scene, Ibsen has
portrayed the doctor as a man of moderate disposition. It is the doctor's belief in
personal rights or freethinking, as opposed to his brother's dissembling, that
causes the doctor to appeal to the masses and for his brother to plan a way of
thwarting or censoring any attempt to reveal the condition of the baths.
Dr. Stockmann proves himself audacious and is persuaded that free and
open expression is a necessity for a human being, proclaiming, "As far as I'm
concerned, it can be anything it damn well likes; but I mean to be free to speak
my mind on any subject on earth." (Act II, 145) The mayor threatens his brother
with dismissal from the staff of the Baths. Petra is horrified that free expression
can meet with such punishment and speaks out, "Uncle, this is a disgraceful way
to treat a man like Father" (Act II, 146) Ibsen stresses throughout the play that
simply having ideas and talking about them behind closed doors is not an
effective agent of social change. What is important is having the courage to
express them openly and fearlessly.
In A Public Enemy, Henrik Ibsen offers us an uncompromising analysis of
the ways in which cynical politicians in cahoots with the media can frustrate the
message of an innocent enthusiast, even — or particularly — when that man is a
fundamentally a political scientist. As a character, Dr. Stockmann has an
innocent energy, a joy of life, a relish of open fighting and a recklessness that
makes him completely incapable of petty political calculation.
There is much of the absent-minded professor about
him.... He is extraordinarily credulous - in fact, an
innocent. He has not lived in the big world, but in
isolation "upnorth" away from the traffic of the cities
and from his native town." (Clurman: 1977, 129)
He thinks that his dissension over the sewers and the waterworks will just end in
closing the Baths for a limited time. He does not realize that this dissension will
have other consequences. Nonetheless, not all this prevents him from having
flourished seeds of revolution in his unconsciousness, which wait the appropriate
time and place to burst. When the appropriate time and place come in Act IV,
the explosion is ready and its destructive lava will demolish everything. The
doctor manages to take the podium and, to the surprise of his fellow compatriots,
states that he does not intend to speak about the Baths,
/ have a great revelation to make to you, my friends. I
want to tell you about a discovery of much more far-
reaching importance than the trifling fact that our
water supply is poisoned, and that our curative Baths
are built on infected ground. (Act IV, 181)
Indeed, he is able to extrapolate the corruption at the Baths to the whole of
society, "the discovery that it's the very sources of our spiritual life that are
poisoned - and that our whole community stands on ground that's infected with
lies!" (Act IV, 181). It appears at first that he will blame the community leaders:
All I mean is that I got on the track of colossal muddle
down at the Baths that our leading citizens are to
blame for. I can 't, for the life of me, stand Leading
Citizens - I've seen too many of 'em in my time.
They're like billy-goats in a young plantation -
destroying everything, and standing in the way of a
free man wherever he turns. I only wish we could
exterminate them like other vermin. (Act IV, 183 )
Tumult erupts in the room, which fires up the doctor even more. Dr. Stockmann
fears nothing, for he feels very strongly that he has truth on his side. He again
rails against the leaders:
You see, I cherish the comfortable belief that those
sluggers - those relics of a dying school of thought -
are very busy cutting their own throats! They don't
need any doctor's help to speed them on their way.
No, it isn't people like that who are the greatest
danger to the community.
(Act IV, 184)
Dr. Stockmann reveals his utmost discovery, or supreme truth, "They're
not the ones who are poisoning our spiritual life at the source, and infecting the
ground under our feet. They're not the ones who're the most dangerous enemies
of truth and freedom in our society." (Act IV, 184). The crowd demands, "who
then? Who are they? Name them!" The doctor continues, "The most dangerous
enemy of truth and freedom among us is ...the solid majority! Yes, the damned,
solid, liberal majority - that's it!" (Act IV, 184) Wild turmoil breaks out in the
Aslaksen demands the doctor withdraw his comment. But the doctor
continues in the same vein regarding the majority as mongrels and asks how they
could be trusted to govern at all:
Dr. Stockmann: The majority never has right on its
side... never, I tell you! That's one of the social lies
that an intelligent, independent man has to fight
against. Who makes up the majority of the population
in a country - the wise men or the fools? I think you'll
agree with me that, all the wide world over, nowadays
the fools are in a quite terrifyingly overwhelming
majority. And how the devil can it be right for the
fools to rule over the wise men? (Act IV, 185)
It appears that no one can stop the doctor now. He continues his argument,
despite the chaos within the room. He responds to Hovstad's notice, "Ah, so the
doctor's revolutionary now!" by saying, "Yes, by god, I am, Mr. Hovstad. I'm
starting a revolution against the lie that truth and the majority go hand in
hand." (Act IV, 186)
Dr. Stockmann's outburst and his way of disdaining the majority indicate
that there is a kind of revolution rooted in his unconsciousness. Obviously, what
is created in the unconsciousness is often illogical, transient and emotional. In
such psychological revolution, ideas, beliefs and ideologies come suddenly and
end quickly. Accordingly, the product of this part of human beings is illogicality
and transience. Any revolution should emerge from the consciousness and it
must be organized logically from the beginning to the end; its targets and means
must be clear and comprehensible. Actually, Dr. Stockmann is not now so much
concerned about the Baths as about revolution." The spectator easily observes
that Dr. Stockmann's language of frustration and irritation in Act VI is not
transitory eruption; it is part of a coherent belief, partly anti-democratic, as
Ibsen's own philosophy generally was, partly aristocratic, partly violent and
extremely narrow-minded. Ronald Gray continues in his argument by saying
Stockmann is not the man who means seriously his
talk of exterminating the opposition, yet this leap from
critical objection to total and ruthless contempt makes
Stockmann one of Ibsen's more childish egoists - no
ordinary distinction - and reduces the political
interest considerably. (Gray: 1977, 92)
According to the Russian Marxist Georgi V. Plekhanov, Dr. Stockmann's
revolution does not demand a radical changing in the social and political system.
He believes that Dr. Stockmann was far from wishing the masses harm in
requiring rebuilding of the Baths. Therefore, he was an enemy of the exploiting
minority rather than of the masses. But in his battle against this minority he
erroneously raises the very objections invented by those who fear the rule of the
majority. Unintentionally, even unconsciously, he speaks here as a true enemy of
the people, as a political reactionary. Dr. Stockmann is fighting the majority
since it refuses to accede to the complete reconstruction of the Public baths,
which he feels to be so extremely necessary for the welfare of the sick. Under
these circumstances, it should have been very simple for Dr. Stockmann to notice
that the majority was on the side of the sick, who came to the town from far and
wide, while those who objected to repairing the Baths were really in the
minority. If he had recognized this, he would have understood how foolish it was
to rail against the majority. The townspeople are actually under the influence of
the shareholders of the Baths, the property owners, and the newspapermen and
publishers and they followed these three powers blindly. In proportion to the
first three groups, the townspeople obviously formed the "solid majority". ( Act
But if Dr. Stockmann had bothered to observe this, he
would have discovered that the majority against whom
he thundered... are not really enemies of progress;
rather it is their ignorance and backwardness, which
are products of their dependence upon a financially
(Plekhanov: 1937, 44)
Although A Public Enemy is replete with sarcastic remarks about the
compact majority, Ibsen is not attacking the concept of democracy itself. Instead,
he levels his criticism upon the unscrupulous leaders and their naive followers.
Because they have vested interests and secret agendas, the bureaucrats mislead
and misguide the public in order to get what they want and to stay in power.
Ibsen shows how such leaders make a mockery of democracy. Stockmann
appropriately refers to them as a social pestilence. However, all this makes Dr.
Stockmann easy prey for the maneuverings of his powerful brother, Peter
Stockmann, and for the scheming of the editor of the liberal paper, Hovstad,
aided and abetted by his sidekick Billing and the printer Aslaksen.
The newspaper editors did support him and so did most of the town up
until the Mayor got to them and told them that he was bad. The people knew
that the Baths were contaminated but they were too afraid to voice their opinion
in fear that they might be different and considered uncooperative to the town
authorities. Therefore, the majority here represents people who do not want to
stand out in a crowd no matter what is going to happen to them or the town.
Here the deadly core of danger lurks when some of the groups that join the cause
of liberty and progress are just as intolerant as their political opponents. If
wishful thinking and life lies are common in the lives of individuals, they
represent a greater danger when people behave in groups. Then it is much easier
to deny one's own responsibility - both when it comes to critical thinking and
insight in consequences of one's actions, as demonstrated in A Public Enemy.
Back at his residence, where the mob has thrown stones at the windows,
Dr. Stockmann utters words of truth about parties and their leaders. Parties are
in Ibsen's vocabulary not limited to political parties, "A party is like a sausage -
machine - it grinds all the brains together into a single mash - till you get
nothing but a pile of blockheads and fatheads!" (Act, IV, 203) Ibsen also regards
people who advocate moderation as a way of life as social pests. He knows that
moderation is meaningless when radical measures are required to root out the
evil that is corroding the society. Aslaksen is the symbol of moderation; he wants
to please all the people all the time. As a result, he is fearful to take any stand,
living on hypocrisy and lies. He acknowledges himself as a man of moderation by
And now, since I am in this position, may I be allowed
to say a few brief words? I am a quiet, peace-loving
man, who believes in temperate discretion - and
discreet temperance... as everyone who knows me is
aware. (Act IV, 177)
In the play and in life, Ibsen values the truth above everything and in
revealing it there should not be compromise or moderation. Dr. Stockmann is
determined that the truth about the baths prevail in order to preserve the health
and honor of the community. He states that suppression of truth is a "swindle - a
lie, a fraud, a positive crime against the public - against the whole community."
(Act II, 140) This is one of the main themes of Ibsen's A Public Enemy. Dr.
Stockmann ingenuously states, "Yes, I love my native town so much that I'd
rather ruin it than see it flourish on a lie" (Act IV, 192) He even suggests that all
persons who live upon a lie ought to be exterminated like vermin, "All those who
live by lies should be wiped out like vermin. It'll end in the whole country being
infected." (Act IV, 192) Evidently, for Ibsen, nothing — neither economical nor
political concern — should be more significant than speaking the truth. For him,
this is something all individuals should strive to do, despite the inevitable conflict
and hardship such may provoke. Indeed, for Ibsen, truth telling becomes the
utmost in a human being's pursuit for self-actualization.
Ibsen endeavors to interpret his ideas about truth into action through Dr
Stockmann. For instance, he demonstrates the false political position of the
Mayor and his reasons for censuring his brother's report.
Dr. Stockmann: ...It was you who arranged that
both the Baths and the conduits should be where they
are today. ..and that's what you won't acknowledge -
that you 've damnable blunder. ...
The Mayor: Even if that were true - even if I do
cherish my prestige with a certain care, I do so in the
interests of the town. Without my reputation for
integrity, I could no longer guide and direct affairs in
the way which I consider most conductive to the
general good. (Act II, 141)
In the above quotation, Dr. Stockmann brings his tension to a head by accusing
his brother of trying to cover up his role in the "damnable blunder" of the
"baths and water conduits." The implication is that the Mayor's social/political
ethics are to avoid blame for the baths problem. To "...guard my reputation" can
be interpreted as an admission to deceiving the public, to keep his high
social/political position and Mayoral "moral authority."
It can be concluded that A Public Enemy has two key messages. First, it is
a criticism of democracy. Second, it is the story of how one individual's bravery
and self-respect can survive overwhelming odds. Ibsen's critique of democracy is
twofold. First, he shows the tyranny of the majority. The majority is a tyrant
insofar as the leaders of society are afraid to do what is right because they are at
the people's mercy. Even though Hovstad wanted to print the doctor's report on
the baths, he was afraid to do so because his subscribers would be upset. The
Mayor cannot propose any changes to the baths because the public might find
out that the Mayor had made a mistake in the original plans and, thus, oust him.
The majority is afraid of risk and, according to the doctor, it is not intelligent
enough to do what is right.
While Ibsen illustrates the tyranny of the majority, he also shows how
leaders can manipulate the majority. When Aslaksen and the Mayor take control
of the town meeting, they are manipulating the majority, using the majority to
their ends. It could be that Hovstad merely cited his subscribers' possible rage as
an excuse because he himself did not want to print the article. More likely, both
he and his subscribers would have been against the doctor. Those who are in
power, like Hovstad and the Mayor, automatically guess what the majority will
want, and they always try to please the majority. While Aslaksen and the mayor
manipulated the audience at the town meeting, they influenced them in the only
way possible. In other words, it would have been almost impossible for the
Mayor to convince the crowd that they should support the doctor's comments
about the stupidity of the masses. Ibsen's idea is that the majority does not rule
directly; instead, the idea and threat of the majority keep leaders from acting
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